Andre De Grasse's transition from amateur sprinting phenom to professional track star has been seamless. Asked what he does when not training for the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the most electrifying Canadian sprinter to come along in nearly 20 years says, jokingly, "I shave."
De Grasse is a quick learner, on and off the track. After turning professional several months ago, the 21-year-old who has taken the sprinting world by storm over the past year signed an $11-million (U.S.) shoe deal with Puma in December and, yesterday, a sponsorship from shaving-cream giant Gillette. Hence his public endorsement of grooming.
But his decision to turn pro and give up his final year of NCAA eligibility at the University of Southern California is about more than just sponsorship deals, as gainful as they are. With the move comes a revamped training regimen geared entirely toward the Rio Games.
Last year, De Grasse ran a staggering 54 races as he climbed his way up the sprinting ladder, dominating the college circuit and cleaning up at the Pan American Games in Toronto in the 100 and 200 metres, before taking bronze in the 100 m at the World Championships in Beijing. But that workload, more than three times what some top sprinters typically race in a season, couldn't last.
With De Grasse's move to professional sprinting comes a more focused approach, with the goal of peaking in time for Rio. To get there, he has joined Altis, the elite training complex in Phoenix that draws athletes from around the world. His new coach, Stuart McMillan, has tutored more than 60 Olympians over the past few decades. After working out in solitude at USC, De Grasse now finds himself lining up against some of the world's best on any given day.
"Usually I'm training with one guy or I'm training by myself most of the time [at USC]. But now I'm training with four or five guys who have contracts as well, and we're all striving for the same thing – to make the Olympics and win a medal," De Grasse said on Tuesday. "So it's really motivating every day in practice because no one gives up, no one lets up."
The transition to a new coach took time, but the results are encouraging.
Early in the season, De Grasse has been faster than he expected. At a race in Tempe, Ariz., last weekend, he won the 200 m in 20.23 seconds, slower than the Canadian record of 19.88 he set at the Pan American Games in July, but good for early-season competition. A week earlier, he ran the 100 m in a wind-aided time of 9.99 seconds at a meet in Florida. "I wasn't really feeling my best," De Grasse said. "But to come with that time was a sign of relief. … I'm running times that, last year, I was struggling to run until the end of the season, so that was a good thing for me."
His ascent has been nothing short of meteoric. De Grasse, who is from Markham, Ont., is the first Canadian to run the 100 m in less than 10 seconds since Donovan Bailey and Bruny Surin did it in the 1990s. De Grasse's time of 9.92 seconds at the world championships put him just 0.13 seconds behind world record holder Usain Bolt in that race. On his present trajectory, De Grasse is within striking distance of the Canadian record of 9.84 shared by Surin and Bailey, and heads to Rio a legitimate threat for the podium.
Four years ago, he was barely in sprinting. A high school basketball point guard who loved driving hard to the net, De Grasse agreed to try track on a whim. Running his first race in borrowed spikes and basketball shorts, the Grade 12 student won the race and caught the eye of Canadian track coach Tony Sharpe, who began training De Grasse in Toronto, then helped him land a scholarship at a community college in Kansas. That road ultimately led to NCAA glory at USC.
As recently as last spring, De Grasse was still an unknown to most outside the sprinting world. The moment people started taking him seriously, he figures, was after he won double gold at the Pan Ams. That was nine months ago. "It's crazy," he said of his evolution over the past year. "I was the guy who was just trying to beat everyone, but now it's like I have the target on my back and everyone's trying to beat me."
As De Grasse prepares to race in Rio, he recalls where he was when the last marquee Olympic race took place in London in 2012: at home, watching it on TV with friends. As Bolt streaked across the finish line to take the gold medal, De Grasse wasn't thinking he would be lining up against the Jamaican superstar four years later.
The implausibility of his emergence is something De Grasse has had to come to terms with, pushing any thoughts of disbelief out of his mind. "I used to think, 'I can't believe I'm lining up against guys that I never imagined,'" De Grasse said. " I don't really think like that any more. I think of it, like: I'm supposed to be here. I'm supposed to be one of the best. So it's kind of weird. It's kind of tricky."
After the bronze medal in Beijing, race-winner Bolt went out of his way to congratulate De Grasse on the track, telling the young sprinter he was impressed with his performance at such a young age, particularly given last season's heavy workload. "He told me just keep your head on straight, keep focused and keep working hard, and you're going to see your dreams come to a reality," De Grasse said.
Editor's clarification: De Grasse's time at the world championships being 0.13 seconds behind Usain Bolt was in reference to Bolt's time of 9.79 seconds in that particular race, not Bolt's world record time of 9.58. The story has been changed to reflect that.