Canadian USC sprinter Andre De Grasse is on the fast track

Andre DeGrasse of Canada has burst on the sprinting scene.

Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Andre De Grasse, the first Canadian sprinter to run 200 meters in under 20 seconds, wasn’t always a track star.

In fact, until his senior year of high school in Ontario, De Grasse was a basketball player and often played against top college prospects such as future top NBA pick Andrew Wiggins. Before his senior year, however, his high school team folded because there were not enough players to field a roster.

"Basketball wasn’t really going well for me. I caught myself in the wrong crowd," DeGrasse told FOX Sports on the USC campus recently. "My grades were bad. I was skipping class; I was resorting to other things."      

He considered transferring to play basketball at a prep school, but when that didn’t work out, he knew he would need an athletic outlet. De Grasse was a multisport athlete growing up, having played soccer and baseball, and though he was fast, sprinting was never in the picture.

De Grasse recalls that his mother, who ran track when she lived in Trinidad during high school, always wanted him to run track. He says he didn’t consider it, however, because he preferred the environment of team sports.

But looking at the numbers from his ridiculously impressive 2015 season, you’d never know his career took so long to start.

De Grasse, 20, is the first Canadian sprinter to record both a sub-10-second mark in the 100 meters as well as a sub-20-second mark in the 200. He’s also made history with a 200-meter time of 19.88 seconds at the Pan Am Games.

The only sprinters to record a better time in the 200 this year, adjusted for wind, are Olympic gold medalist Justin Gatlin and Jamaica’s Rasheed Dwyer.

De Grasse first caught the attention of the track world at York University during his junior year of high school when a friend invited him to watch his meet. Naturally competitive, De Grasse asked the coach whether he could join the team to race so he could see how fast his friend really was.

He wore basketball shorts and canvas shoes and says he had no idea how to use the starting blocks. Despite an awkward kickoff, he ran a 10.9-second mark to win the 100 meters.

Basketball wasn’t really going well for me. I caught myself in the wrong crowd. My grades were bad. I was skipping class; I was resorting to other things.

Andre De Grasse

His electrifying performance caught the attention of an Olympic medalist, Canadian sprinter Tony Sharpe, who was in the crowd. This is the moment De Grasse says that everything turned around.

"He told me he wanted to teach me how to use the starting blocks," De Grasse said with a laugh. "I still don’t even really know how to use them that well, to this day. I’m still learning."

This mentorship — and a stint with Sharpe at The Speed Academy — helped De Grasse bring his 100-meter personal best to an impressive 10.5-second mark later that season.

Coming to America

After such a suddenly impactful redirection, opportunities in track and field began to feel endless.

De Grasse never had a basketball coach who could help him find collegiate scholarship opportunities on the hardwood. Plus, he knew his grades weren’t close to being good enough to earn a spot on a Division I roster.

When Sharpe introduced him to the junior college system, his future finally began to feel like it had a path.

He wore basketball shorts and canvas shoes and says he had no idea how to use the starting blocks.

De Grasse attended Coffeyville Community College in Kansas, known for  both its football and basketball programs.

Cold conditions in Kansas made it hard to practice outdoors, and the team often conducted workouts in a gymnasium, on the basketball court or on a small, indoor football field.

"We made it happen. When the weather got good, we went outside, but it didn’t get good until April," De Grasse said. "We made the best of it. I don’t know how we did it, but we did it."

Once again, De Grasse got noticed. In just two seasons, his track team won five NJCAA titles. He also worked with tutors to make sure he had good enough grades for a bigger program.

Soon, he had received offers from Florida State, Alabama, Oklahoma, UCLA and USC. Canadian teammate Aaron Brown attended USC and told De Grasse his times dropped significantly with the new USC coaching staff, led by Caryl Smith Gilbert.

"I just had this vibe when I came into campus," said De Grasse, who studies sociology. "I knew I could be successful academically and athletically. The whole atmosphere was awesome, and the weather played a big role as well because I was in Kansas."  

Then, during the Pac-12 Track and Field Championships at UCLA’s Drake Stadium, De Grasse set a record for the meet and the venue by finishing the 100 in 9.97 seconds. He also won the 200 and the 4×100 relay.

After his first season at USC, he was named 2015 Men’s National Track Athlete of the Year by the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association.  

I try not to say that track saved me. But track gave me the opportunity to get an education.

Andre De Grasse

"I try not to say that track saved me. But track gave me the opportunity to get an education," De Grasse said. "It’s opened up so many doors for me. I’m really happy about that, and I’m proud to make my family and friends proud."

NCAA championships and Pan Am Games

De Grasse turned into a bit of a folk legend in the track community after his great success during the June NCAA Championships in Eugene, Ore. 

"It was a great experience to be in front of a crowd that was so energetic. I’d never seen that at a track and field event," De Grasse said.

De Grasse says he didn’t realize how significant his accomplishments were until a few days later when his coaches told him. He may have received a clue, however, when his phone died after it received so many notifications from new followers on Twitter and Instagram: blowing up from 500 followers to nearly 6,000.

When he returned home to Canada to compete in the Pan Am Games, he had crowds of people asking for photographs and autographs. He even got an award from the mayor as Athlete of the Pan Am Games for July 22 and 24.

De Grasse put on a show at the NCAA Track and Field championships in June.

Once more, De Grasse was stellar in his performance. His story, it seemed, had come full circle. With Sharpe in the crowd at York University yet again, De Grasse won the 100 in 10.05 seconds. Then, he won gold in the 200 with a 19.88-second personal best.

Someone threw a Canadian flag on to the track for him to sport, and the storybook narrative continued.

"There are no words to really describe that, to go across the stadium, high-five everyone," De Grasse said. "I didn’t even know what to do. It was my first time taking a victory lap. That was just such an incredible feeling."

What’s next?

Around the world, people are starting to know the name Andre De Grasse. Sometimes that comes with some incorrect assumptions.

"People think I do extraordinary things," De Grasse said. "I just watch movies with my friends, play basketball, go out to the mall, I just do regular things. They think I’m like Superman or something."

De Grasse maintains that, indeed, he’s the same person he was when he was 16 years old — before he started sprinting, around the time he started to get his sleeve of tattoos.

A Catholic prayer — "And if I die before I wake / I pray the lord my soul to take" — as the most noticeable inking. There’s the word "hope" and "God’s gift", there’s a "94" for the year he was born, there’s a Scorpio sign and there are Canadian leaves on the back of his arm for his country.

After a breakout season at USC, De Grasse is on the way to the World Championships later this month.

"They all mean something to me. They all help," De Grasse explained. "Every time before I run, I always look at the one that says ‘hope’."

Canadian sprinter Donovan Bailey, who once held the world record for the 100 meters after winning gold in the 1996 Olympics, recently tweeted at De Grasse to tell him that the torch is now his to keep. De Grasse, however, says he needs to get on such a level and win an Olympic championship before that’s official.   

De Grasse is off to leave the country yet again, on his way to the World Championships in China. The events, from Aug. 22-30, will be a major test.

He’s heard that before his race, the entire crowd — which could be up to 100,000 people — will go "shhhhhhh" and then fall silent for all of the sprinters. He knows he’ll have to adjust and be prepared for that unique experience.

This will be his last meet before he returns to USC for his senior season. Then, he will earn his degree in May 2016.

"Track has really opened up the opportunity to travel the world. It’s taking me to Europe. It’s taking me to Asia. I’ve been all over America," De Grasse said. "It’s really seeing different cities and different cultures."