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The surge of running’s popularity as an Olympic event in recent years came on the tail end of Usain Bolt’s electric career, but with that, a new star took the spotlight.
An iconic moment between Canadian sprinter Andre De Grasse and Bolt was shared during the 200m semi-final at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, lining up right next to each other in the fifth and fourth lane, and finishing first and second in the heat.
Near the finish line, De Grasse looked to his left smiling at Bolt, who smiled back, like a virtue signalling that when Bolt was done, De Grasse would be up next.
Success had already come for De Grasse, who made a name for himself at the Rio Olympics where he broke onto the scene taking home one silver and two bronze medals during the games. Five years after that moment, his leadership would advance to the next level.
Coming into Tokyo, expectations were high for De Grasse to one-up his breakthrough performance from his first-ever Games. De Grasse was a leader for the Canadian men’s relay team, who had podiumed in Rio as well, but this time the mood was somber, a complete reverse of how exciting and colourful the previous Games had been.
Unable to train together due to their geographical locations and limitations from the pandemic, the Canadian relay team had to take each other into account when practising to know each runner’s strengths and how they could make each other better when their time finally arrived.
“They tried to make it a home for us as much as they could, I really kind of just hung out with my teammates, we just passed the time when I wasn't competing… it was cool in that aspect, just the camaraderie and being together with your team and enjoying that,” said De Grasse.
“I don't get a chance to really see those guys often, so it was good to just all come together in that aspect. On the track, of course, yeah it was different, though, with no fans.”
A global pandemic had not only pushed the Games back a year, but it also meant that athletes could no longer train at their regular tracks, and it isolated Canada’s runners more than they already had been in such an individual sport.
Many, including De Grasse, cut their time in Tokyo as short as possible – the atmosphere of not only no fans but also not being able to bring family members or support meant that as soon as events ended, athletes left the village.
“I didn't want to be in Tokyo for that long, especially with everything that's been going on and with not having family and friends and stuff like that,” said De Grasse.
“So that was one step for me to try to, you know, just try to get it over with as soon as possible.”
There was a glimmer of hope for Canada’s runners, though, as they were allowed to hang out with athletes from their same sport, which meant that the relay team could see each other and form a brotherhood.
De Grasse, Aaron Brown and Brendon Rodney had all stood atop the podium together in Rio, and with the addition of Jerome Blake, they knew they could achieve something bigger than themselves in Tokyo.
When they got to the track on the second-last day of events, after they were ranked third from their heat heading into the finals, Canada lined up in lane four in hopes of bringing home hardware that was concrete proof that not only were they Olympians, but that Canada was put on the map in the world of running.
On top of the nerves that consumed the athletes heading into the final, De Grasse and Brown had gotten little sleep as they had competed in the 200m final just before, where De Grasse won his first ever gold medal while Brown finished sixth.
For De Grasse, team Canada’s anchor, it was always about more than himself, but rather competing for his teammates and his country and showcasing that any medal is always bigger than one person.
During the pandemic, De Grasse had partnered with GoDaddy and their “Don’t Stop Being Unstoppable” campaign to help small businesses thrive even during times of uncertainty, and prove that with the help of others around, it’s possible to achieve lifelong goals.
“Just trying to just continue to celebrate small businesses and entrepreneurs, because I feel like they're the backbone of our community,” said De Grasse.
“So many of them have struggled this past year and a half, and we're just trying to get everybody back on track. It was really good to team up with GoDaddy in that way and try to help support them in any way that I can.”
Supporting small businesses, or his relay team, was something that De Grasse had taken a lot of pride in when it comes to career achievements.
So, when the baton was passed to De Grasse around the last corner to take the final 100m sprint to a podium, that’s exactly what was on his mind.
As a champion of mental health and putting himself first, as well as his teammates, blocking out all the stressors of training, life beyond the Olympics, and the prior 18 months was far from easy.
But De Grasse knew it wasn't going to be easy. And those final seconds may have been some of the toughest of his career – trailing not only Italy and Great Britain, who finished on the podium ahead of Canada, but also China and Jamaica.
Tapping into his inner beast, De Grasse sped past China's and Jamaica’s anchors to give Canada another medal, but most important to him, give his teammates one too.
“It's cool to just come together and be like, 'alright guys, we get a chance to try to win a medal here, we have a great shot.' It was just really good to just really just see them and team up with them,” said De Grasse.
“Winning a medal was great, and we were all very happy. We just continue to get better from here at least, but we were happy to defend our Olympic bronze from 2016.”
De Grasse has podiumed in every single Olympic event he’s competed in, and even went on to win the Prefontaine Classic 100m event too just weeks after his triple-medal performance in Tokyo, signifying the start of a new era in running for Canadians after Donovan Bailey made history 25 years before him.
With sights set on Paris 2024, less than three years away now due to the Tokyo Games being pushed back, De Grasse and his team are all eager to continue to win for each other, while inspiring the next generation of Canadian athletes to compete with the powerhouses of the world.
As life slowly becomes as close to normal as it can get, De Grasse and the relay team have priorities other than running — whether it be continuing to support small businesses, or spending time with family, or just reminiscing on the pedestal that their brotherhood has been put on through the eyes of Olympians.
That pedestal is earned, and they have formed not only a pact as athletes to compete for each other, but as brothers, and Olympians, to continue to use their drive for the greater good of each other.
“I would like to take one step at a time, but everyone always tells me I’ve got two more Olympics in me,” said De Grasse.
“I'll take it one step at a time, but I'll definitely be looking forward to representing Canada again in Paris.”
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