Canadian Andre De Grasse celebrates after winning bronze in the men’s 100m race ath the Rio Olympics on August 14, 2016. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Andre De Grasse can’t help but see a bit of himself in teenagers Daquan Berry and Ethan Smith.
They’re young and fast, and brimming with promise. And like it was for De Grasse in his teen years, money is tight.
So when Berry and Smith qualified for this weekend’s prestigious U.S. high school indoor track championships, known as the New Balance Nationals, there was concern about how the two Speed Academy sprinters would get to New York. In stepped De Grasse, who wrote a cheque to his former track club for the trip.
“I heard the story about these talented kids and thought about myself in 2013 when I qualified for the Pan American junior championships in Colombia,” De Grasse said from Phoenix, where he lives and trains.
“Tony (Sharpe, his former coach) and the club found the support to help me get to that meet. I brought back a silver and bronze medal in the 100 and 200 metres, and that experience gave me the confidence to continue on with track and qualify for other international teams. I just want to ensure these kids have similar opportunities because that’s where it all started for me.”
De Grasse signed an US$11.25-million deal with Puma when he turned pro, and went on to win three medals — silver in the 200 metres, bronze in the 100 and 4×100 relay — at last summer’s Rio Olympics.
Like De Grasse, the six-foot-four Berry was a talented basketball player — he’s featured in several YouTube highlight videos — with dreams of playing in the NBA. Smith’s sport was football.
But their natural speed led the 17-year-olds to sprinting. On virtually zero formal training, Smith raced to gold in the junior 400 metres last year at OFSAA (Ontario high school championships), while Berry was third in the junior 100. De Grasse was fifth in OFSAA in Grade 12 before his meteoric risk up the ranks.
The Grade 11 students now train with Sharpe and his Speed Academy club.
“These circumstances come along and the guy who came to mind was ’Well, this sounds a lot like Andre.’ These two boys are the mirror image of Andre. And these two boys probably wouldn’t be making this trip if it wasn’t for (De Grasse’s) help,” Sharpe said. “My concern immediately was: how are we going to get them there? They’re through the roof (happy).”
Sharpe was De Grasse’s first track coach, famously spotting the young athlete racing in baggy basketball shorts at a high school track meet. The coach likes to remind Berry and Smith of the Canadian star’s inauspicious beginning and swift ascension in the sport.
“That’s our dream, to get where Andre is, on the world stage,” Smith said. “(Sharpe) always talks about how I can be the next Andre De Grasse because I was a late bloomer and have achieved a lot very quickly, and that I work hard like Andre did.”
Berry and Smith both watched the 22-year-old De Grasse race in Rio with keen interest.
Smith’s favourite moment was the 200 semifinal when De Grasse “was racing Bolt and he was smiling at him.”
“It made me think that anything is possible,” Berry added. “Four years, and look where he is now.”
They said De Grasse set a great example with his generosity.
“It’s an honour for him to really recognize us and take his time to actually do something like this,” Berry said. “It’s very welcoming.
Said Smith: “He’s showing us young athletes that we can achieve big as long as we set our minds to it and work hard.”