Andre De Grasse: brightest hopes for Canadian sprinting
It was just three years ago when Andre De Grasse decided to take running track seriously. He was a 17-year-old high school student with NBA dreams, but entered a track meet at the behest of a friend. Tony Sharpe, a former Olympic medallist turned coach, was in the stands when De Grasse finished the race in second place.
Since then, De Grasse has become one of the brightest hopes for Canadian sprinting in a long time, inching closer to breaking a longstanding record set by Canadian sprinting legends Donovan Bailey and Bruny Surin and earning their praise in the process.
After De Grasse’s silver medal performance at the high school meet, Sharpe had one of his athletes introduce him to De Grasse. Sharpe convinced him he was talented and could have a bright future as a sprinter.
“He told me I could be great. I could go to the Olympics and do great things. I think that just kind of stuck out to me and that’s why I just stuck in the sport and continued to excel in it,” De Grasse told the National Post.
The two started working together, Sharpe helping De Grasse get into a community college in the U.S., which he parlayed into a scholarship at the University of Southern California where he’s completing a degree in sociology.
This year was De Grasse’s coming out party.
The Markham, Ont. native’s first attention-grabbing triumph came in June, when he won the 100-metre and 200-metre races within 45 minutes at the NCAA track and field championships. If not for a tailwind that was deemed too strong, his times of 9.75 seconds and 19.58 seconds respectively would have set new Canadian records in those distances (he already holds the Canadian record for the 200, which he ran in 20.03 seconds at a meet in May).
In July, he took gold in both the 100 and 200 in front of a hometown crowd at the Pan Am Games in Toronto. He would have had a third gold medal, in the 4×100 relay, but the team was disqualified after the race.
But perhaps his biggest accomplishment to date came in August, when he shocked almost everyone in the world of athletics by tying for third in the 100 at the world championships in Beijing with a time of 9.911 seconds. He is only the third Canadian man ever to run that distance with a sub-10 second time.
De Grasse was a year old when Donovan Bailey set the Canadian record in the 100 at the 1996 Olympic Games, winning gold in a time of 9.84. Bruny Surin matched that time three years later. Both men, as well as De Grasse’s coach, believe De Grasse has what it takes to break that record.
The wins in Beijing (he also helped Canada win a bronze in the 4×100 relay), came at the tail end of an incredible year for the now 20-year-old. They also meant he was in line for cash bonuses and, if he turned professional, a slew of endorsement deals that could net him six- and seven-figure paydays.
But according to The Canadian Press, NCAA athletes must maintain their amateur status and are not allowed to collect prize money beyond “necessary expenses,” be represented by an agent, or earn income from endorsement deals.
So De Grasse had a choice to make – forgo his final year at school to turn pro, or return to compete for his school and complete his degree.
“I’ve got to talk to my coach and make what’s best for me and my family, so we’ll go from there,” De Grasse said at the time. “Whatever my mom says, that’s my goal, to get my degree first.”
As the saying goes, mother knows best – earlier this month it was revealed De Grasse will return to USC to finish his degree.
Usain Bolt : Lighting will continue to strike
Only one man could take Usain Bolt down at the world championships in Beijing last August, and he did it literally. With a Segway.
A cameraman barreled into the Jamaican sprinter as he was celebrating his decisive win in the 200-metre sprint.
“I am fine. I have a few cuts. But it’s nothing I have never done to myself in training. I feel like Justin Gatlin had something to do with it,” the joked the fastest man alive in the aftermath.
It’s been a tough few years for the native of Trelawny Parish. Injury forced him to cut short his 2014 season after appearing in just three races. Earlier this year, his best race times were over 10 seconds for the 100 metres and over 20 seconds for the 200 – not good enough to win anything at a professional level, most days. Injuries again forced him to sit out events in Paris and Lausanne, Switzerland in June.
Those decisions were made in preparation for this year’s worlds. Held in the same stadium where Bolt’s speed first stunned the world during the 2008 Olympics, it would be a homecoming of sorts for the affable but competitive 29-year-old, and he wanted to be ready.
When many of us think of Bolt, we remember the tall, slender, muscular man who made running 100 metres at an unfathomable speed look like a brisk jog in Beijing seven years ago. He breezed to the finish line, looking back at his opponents over his shoulder while he beat his chest, starting his victory celebration before the race was even over. Then he did it all over again at the 2012 Olympics in London, defending his titles in the 100, 200 and 4×100 relay.
But it was a different story at the worlds. Bolt’s main rival Justin Gatlin may have won it all, had he not stumbled in the final few metres of the 100. Bolt won it in 9.79 seconds, with Gatlin right behind him at 9.80 seconds.
The 200 is Bolt’s favorite distance, and after his close call in the 100, he felt he had something to prove. He wound up beating Gatlin by almost 20 one-hundredths of a second to capture his second gold of the meet. Doesn’t sound like much, but by the final 50 or so metres Bolt returned to form, easing up a bit, a big smile across his face and thumping his chest in excitement when he realized he’d won it.
“Why I really celebrated was Justin Gatlin said earlier in the week that he was going to bring out something special for the 200 metres,” Bolt said after the race. “I was like: ‘Yo, you don’t talk about my 200 like that’. I had to prove to him that I am No. 1.”
Bolt recently announced on his Facebook page that he’s done racing for the year, and will take a break before turning his attention to preparation for next year’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. It’s a similar strategy to the one he undertook leading up to the worlds, which begs the question: will Bolt be able to defend his titles once again? Will lightning strike three times?
Justin Gatlin: the elder statesman
American sprinter Justin Gatlin was the underdog in the 100-metre sprint coming into the 2004 Athens Olympics. When the dust settled, four men ran the race in under 10 seconds for the first time in history, but Gatlin’s time turned out to be the best, taking 9.85 seconds to win his first Olympic gold.
“I don’t remember much until the last moments of the race. I remember the gun going off and I knew in the last 10 metres I had to come home with power,” he said at the time. “It hasn’t sunk in. This is the most special moment of my life.”
He added a silver medal in the 4×100 and a bronze in the 200 to his haul that year.
Eleven years later, Gatlin is now 33 years old and the undeniable elder statesmen of the sprinting world these days. He’s running remarkably well for his age – in fact, he’s running better than he ever has. At this year’s world championships in August, he won silver medals, in the 100 and 200, behind Usain Bolt.
But it hasn’t been a fairy tale career for the American. He’s served two bans for alleged doping, one in 2001 that lasted a year (originally two years, but reduced to one after Gatlin argued the amphetamines found in his sample came from a medication he was taking) and another four-year (reduced from eight) ban in 2006.
He returned to the track in 2010, but his alleged indiscretions have caused permanent damage to his reputation. He blames his medication for the first incident and a jilted trainer for the other, seemingly denying all responsibility.
The British media was especially critical of Gatlin, often pitting him and Bolt against each other in a personification of good and evil, with Bolt depicted as saving the sport’s integrity and reputation, which Gatlin destroyed.
Bolt and Gatlin have gone head-to-head a number of times in their careers, including Gatlin’s second career appearance at the Olympics in 2012. Bolt and countryman Yohan Blake went 1-2 in the 100 that year, relegating Gatlin to bronze. The only time the American beat the blazing fast Jamaican was in 2013, when Gatlin edged out Bolt by one-hundredth of a second at a meet in Italy.
The problem many in the sprinting world have with Gatlin now is the same issue baseball fans have with players such as Alex Rodriguez, who was banned from his sport for alleged doping – trust. Many have suggested Gatlin’s recent successes at a relatively advanced age may be due to renewed doping, but he hasn’t failed a test since 2010.
Gatlin’s agent Renaldo Nehemiah told the Guardian last year that no matter what his client says or doesn’t say, there will still be those who will doubt his achievements. “That’s the world we live in. [The World Anti-Doping Agency] and [the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency] have full access to him whenever they choose to test him. Aside from that, there’s nothing more he can do. He’ll never please or satisfy everyone. All of the other distractions, critics and haters, will always be there. He can only account for himself.”
Serena Williams remains Queen of the Courts
It seemed like the 2015 U.S. Open wasn’t going to be so much of a competition as it was to be a coronation for Serena Williams, vying to become the first tennis player in 27 years to win all four Grand Slam tournaments in a single year.
Williams turned pro 20 years ago, she and older sister Venus coached by their father Richard, their beaded braids knocking into each other as they ran across the courts.
Venus was Serena’s fifth casualty in her quest for the Slam, beating her sister in three sets in just over 90 minutes in on the court. Oft cited (by Serena herself) as her most difficult opponent, with Venus gone, 33-year-old’s date with history appeared to be inevitable. Publicly at least, everyone was rooting for her. This would happen. She would do it. The title and glory were hers to be won.
Then, heartbreak. Unseeded Italian Roberta Vinci played the match of her life and Williams had no reply, losing in the semifinals. So close, and nothing to show for it.
Except that’s not entirely true. Despite not capturing the calendar Grand Slam, Serena Williams is repeatedly coming up in discussions of the best female tennis player and even the best female athlete of all time. She is a titan of tennis who has inspired countless little girls from Compton and beyond to pick up a tennis racket and compete in what has historically been a white-dominated sport.
While 2015 may not have gone exactly as planned, Williams has publicly said she has her sights set on competing at next year’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, another season to cement her place as a force in women’s tennis.
Should you need more convincing, consider this list of selected milestones she’s achieved over the course of her 20-year professional career.
• Career prize money: $74,083,421
• Career win-loss record: 737-123
• Career total weeks ranked No. 1: 258 (fourth highest behind Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert)
• At the 1999 U.S. Open, she became the second African-American woman to win a Grand Slam title.
• She was the first African-American to win the Australian Open championship, in 2003, and became the fifth woman to hold all four Grand Slam singles titles at the same time.
• Her win at last year’s U.S. Open was her sixth, tied with Chris Evert for the most in the Open Era.
• In 2012, after winning the singles and doubles gold in the Olympics, she became the second female player to achieve the Golden Slam (winning all four Grand Slams and the Olympic gold, after Steffi Graf) and the first to achieve that feat in both singles and doubles.
• In 2015, she won her sixth Wimbledon title and is now the only person to have won three of the four Grand Slams six times.
• She is the oldest player to hold all Grand Slam singles titles simultaneously (2014-2015).
• She is the only player, male or female, to complete the Career Golden Slam after turning 30 years old.