Photography: Ilich Mejia; Photo Assistant: Francisco Andrade; Stylist: Shea Hurley; Styling Assistant: Esme McBride; Grooming: Antonio Hines; Video: Elaine Fancy, Spencer Bell
Last August, for a few brief moments during a blisteringly hot evening in Tokyo, it seemed as though all of Canada was fixated on a single race. It was a brief and unified focus, but during those turbulent 9.89 seconds and 100 metres of track, the country witnessed one of its greatest athletes return to the spotlight. And after those 9.89 seconds, Canada’s Andre De Grasse stood on the podium to accept his bronze medal. Of course, this wasn’t the ultimate goal. Just three days later, the Markham, Ontario native found himself back on the podium following a Canadian recording-setting 19.62 time in the men’s 200-metre race—except this time, he stood with a gold medal hanging from his neck.
For 27-year-old De Grasse, dreams of Olympic stardom were far from his mind when he first began high school. Instead, De Grasse fell in love with basketball, even playing against NBA forward Andrew Wiggins before joining his school’s track team ever crossed his mind. And like most teenagers when presented with a new prospect, he was reluctant.
“At first, I didn’t think much of it,” he admits. “But, you know, as a kid, you just want to compete with your friends. You want to prove you’re just as fast.”
Finally, after a bet with a friend (and a promise that there would be girls at the track races), De Grasse was persuaded. He arrived at his first race wearing baggy basketball shorts and a pair of borrowed spikes. As he lined up, De Grasse remained standing and ignored the starting blocks. To look at him would be to see the stereotypical newcomer, the embodiment of inexperience. And yet just moments after the starting gun sounded, De Grasse crossed the finish line with just one competitor ahead of him. Armed with borrowed shoes, billowing shorts, and a wealth of naïveté, he took home second place. No one knew it then, but it was this seemingly effortless, cool assurance that would go on to define De Grasse’s career.
“Back then, there was no pressure,” he reminisces. “I had a little wager with a friend but it was all about having fun and enjoying the moment. I just remember going out there and not knowing what to do with myself. […] I just went out there and ran and the right people took notice.”
Still, even with a growing penchant and natural ability for the sport, De Grasse’s path to becoming the superstar darling of Team Canada was not neatly paved. After joining the sport late, De Grasse graduated high school with limited offers, leaving him to start his collegiate career at Coffeyville Community College, where he spent his freshmen and sophomore seasons competing in an underfunded athletic program deep in the heart of Kansas. For a city kid with a flashy personality and an aesthetic to match, arriving at a small town that’s most notable event took place over 130 years ago is a jarring adjustment.
“When I was in Kansas, I definitely wasn’t thinking about becoming an Olympian,” he recalls with a laugh. “I was just trying to survive. It was my first time being away from Toronto and it was a completely different experience. But you just have to roll with it. I told myself, ‘Let’s run fast and let’s get into a Division 1 school. I’m gonna do this. I’m going to make this happen.’”
After just two seasons, De Grasse made good on that promise to himself. His brief but gruelling stint offered him the chance to showcase his talents to coaches at Division 1 USC, where his raw ability was honed and eventually led him to the national stage.
Day by day, second by second, he shaved off his time, with the baggy basketball shorts long retired. But it wasn’t until 2015 that De Grasse’s efforts paid off in the literal sense. He burst onto the world stage by winning a bronze medal in the 100 metres and 4×100-metre relay in Beijing, China competing in his first World Championships. It was this dominant emergence paired with a wealth of charisma that earned him a multi-year contract worth $11.25 million – one of the largest in the sport – and a string of endorsements that leveraged the sprinter’s unbridled coolness. Then, following a strong season the next year, De Grasse was thrust into the biggest spotlight of his career: the Rio Summer Olympics.
Today, most of the country remembers how De Grasse’s Olympic debut played out. They know the viral few seconds of Jamacia’s Usain Bolt sharing a laugh and a smile with De Grasse as he pulled up alongside the world’s fastest man in the final stretch of the 200-metre semifinal. De Grasse would go on to win silver in the final. They know the polished smile from the podium. They know the charming young sprinter from the commercials. Of course, they couldn’t know the countless hours spent under the hot Kansas sun on an empty track to pave his way to Rio.
But even after such a promising Olympic debut alongside Bolt, De Grasse still had yet to climb to the top of the Olympic podium. Before running his 200-metre race in Tokyo, he had captured a medal in every event he’d competed in over two games. And yet, gold still eluded him.
“It was something I’d been looking towards for so long,” he remembers. “I felt like I always came up a bit short. […] Going into [the 2021 Summer Olympics], I was at the point where I wanted it more than ever.”
Just days after being thrown off by a pair of false starts from his competitors in the 100m, he returned to the starting blocks. Despite coming off what could only be considered a disappointing result by De Grasse’s standards (and a bronze-medal finish by the world’s standards), he looked entirely unbothered, saluting the camera in a pair of sleek Oakley shades before the gun went off. Once again, just as he had in high school, Coffeyville, Rio, and every other stop along the way of his long and arduous journey, the pain of coming up short only helped mould this cool composure, like a diamond forged under immense pressure.
As the starting gun sounded, De Grasse surged down the stretch in Lane 6, precise and explosive strides propelling him toward the finish. The moment he crossed the tape, he knew he’d finally broken through. The gold was his.
For 200m, he was the fastest man in the world. And yet even during such a momentous occasion, De Grasse maintained his cool, lying on his back and reflecting quietly on the moment. It’s this balance between exuberant flash and steady calmness that has defined his career on and off the track. It’s what’s helped lend himself to partnerships like his latest venture with CoolBet as their literal “Ambassador of Cool.”
“[With partnerships,] I try to be a role model on and off the track,” he explains. “With CoolBet, they brought me on because I know when to have fun but I also know how important it is to be able to flip that switch and take the moment seriously. […] That’s the attitude I’m trying to bring to gaming. They want to show off my personality and humour, but part of my training is also knowing my limits. In that way, I think the partnership represents me well.”
But more importantly than his endeavours off the track, it’s this delicate balance that has helped him remain an unwavering constant through rigorous training, community college facilities, and the inevitable shortcomings that come with competing at the highest level.
“We’re all trying to be the best,” he says. “But you have to go through so much mentally before you get there. I like to have fun, I smile, I show off my personality. And I think people appreciate that. But there are also mental battles you have to go through. […] They can be good for you but only if you know how to handle them. […] It’s a balance. I’ve always had the confidence. But remembering the moments when I’ve come up short is just as important.”
Short-distance running is a unique sport in that the highlights are the same length as the event itself. The moment is fleeting. Speed is king, and shaving precious milliseconds off of one’s time is key. Yet as we continue to applaud one of the country’s most decorated Olympians in the coming years, perhaps it shouldn’t be his lack of time that is celebrated but rather its abundance: the countless hours spent in baggy basketball shorts and borrowed track shoes, early mornings and late nights training in an empty stadium in Coffeyville, the months of rehab endured for third-place medals that helped form the diamond that is Andre De Grasse.
As for what’s next for the 27-year-old track star, the long road to satisfaction doesn’t end with a solitary gold medal.
“I want the 100m,” he says, leaning back casually in his chair. “I want to be the world’s fastest man.”