'I think he can go a lot faster': Canadian sprinter Jerome Blake realizing world-class potential

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Canada's Jerome Blake ran 10.20 seconds to place third ahead of 2020 Olympic bronze medallist Andre De Grasse (10.24) in the men's 100 metres on Saturday at the Müller Birmingham Diamond League meet. Blake's mentor, Aaron Brown, won in 10.13, followed by Blake's cousin, Yohan, in 10.18. (Sean Burges/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images/File - image credit)
Canada's Jerome Blake ran 10.20 seconds to place third ahead of 2020 Olympic bronze medallist Andre De Grasse (10.24) in the men's 100 metres on Saturday at the Müller Birmingham Diamond League meet. Blake's mentor, Aaron Brown, won in 10.13, followed by Blake's cousin, Yohan, in 10.18. (Sean Burges/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images/File - image credit)

Aaron Brown first noticed a change in Jerome Blake after his Star Athletics teammate unofficially became the fifth-fastest man all-time over 200 metres on a straight track.

Blake achieved the feat last May 23, surprising world-renowned runners from the United States, South Africa and Great Britain to win in 19.89 seconds at the adidas Boost Boston Games, the Canadian's first sub-20 in the distance but neither World Athletics nor Athletics Canada recognizes the event on its websites.

"After that race, he was a very confident guy, almost too much," Brown recalled ahead of Saturday's Müller Birmingham Diamond League meet in England, where he won the 100 in 10.13 seconds and was part of Canada's winning squad in the men's 4x100 relay.

"He kept saying, 'I'm going to run 19 [seconds] at this race and this race.' He didn't let it come naturally and started to put expectations on himself."

Blake, who was third on Saturday in 10.20, would post world-class times in practice, but they didn't translate to competitions on a standard track. He also wasn't focused for early season races and not present, mentally, at the start line. The added pressure eventually cost him a spot as a 100 or 200 runner on the 2020 Canadian Olympic team.

Watching a 100 final in Tokyo not featuring Blake infuriated his coach Dennis Mitchell, the 1992 Olympic bronze medallist from the U.S. He tore a stripe off his athlete as they watched the race, five days before Blake and Brown helped Canada to relay bronze.

"I didn't know what I was doing. It was a new [training system] and I was struggling with trusting something new," said Blake, who left coach Tara Self in Coquitlam, B.C., after the 2020 season to train with Brown and Mitchell in Florida. "I didn't trust what he [Mitchell] was telling me.

"But it was more I didn't believe in myself. He gave me a stern cussing and sometimes it helps push you."

WATCH | Blake 'still growing as an athlete and person':

Blake, who was born in Buff Bay, Jamaica, clocked 10.06 and 20.20 in the 100 and 200, respectively, late in the 2021 campaign and was told by Mitchell he "left a lot on the table."

The six-foot-three, 198-pound sprinter told CBC Sports he spent the off-season improving his hip and core strength and is now stronger and more comfortable when he's upright and running. Blake also spent time working on his mental strength with a sports psychologist and continues to refine technical elements to become faster out of the starting blocks and over the first 10 to 20 metres.

'I trust the work I've put into training'

"I've stopped putting pressure on myself," said Blake, who was a hurdler, high jumper and long jumper before relocating with his family to the Okanagan region in B.C. in his final year of high school.

"I trust the work I've put into training and understand for each race I'm going to give what I have, do what I need to do, and the results will be the results."

"He covers a lot of ground with his stride, has a good work ethic and is living up to the potential he has shown," added Brown, the three-time defending Canadian champion in the 200 who was Blake's mentor in 2017's RBC Training Ground. "This year, he believes he belongs and can compete with the people he lines up against.

"I think he can go a lot faster and off the track I've seen him do a lot of things to make him a world-class athlete. He's very strict with his diet and up on the supplements he's taking."

WATCH | Why Brown thinks track & field business needs overhaul:

Blake has delivered early this season.

He opened his outdoor season on April 9 at the Bermuda Games, running 10.38 into a strong headwind to beat American standouts Noah Lyles and Erriyon Knighton along with his cousin, Yohan Blake of Jamaica, who was second in Saturday's 100.

A week later, Jerome Blake set a 20.04 personal-best in the 200 at the USATF Golden Games. The 26-year-old then went 10-flat in the 100 on May 1 for another PB at a local meet after taking a few days off to visit his mother in Kelowna, B.C.

WATCH | 'Mental preparedness, hip speed' make De Grasse fast:

Retired Canadian sprinter Glenroy Gilbert remembers a young Blake catching his eye in 2017 "running on sheer talent with no strength or development" at the Canada Summer Games in Winnipeg.

"I've always thought Jerome could be a good sprinter," said Gilbert, now Athletics Canada head coach. "[He] finally did what he needed to do, training in an environment with world-class athletes that would be conducive to him running fast. It's hard to say where the ceiling is for him."

Olympic relay medal upgrade for Canada

Blake's marked improvement can only benefit Canada's relay squad in a world championship year. On Saturday, Andre De Grasse, Brendon Rodney, Brown and Blake posted a winning time of 38.31 seconds over France (38.41) in the men's 100 event.

Saturday's race was the first time they had shared the track in nine months since crossing the finish line third at the Olympics in Tokyo. They were rained out at the Florida Relays in early April.

WATCH | Canadian men's relay team races to Olympic podium in Tokyo:

On Thursday, the International Olympic Committee rubber-stamped Brown and company's Olympic upgrade to silver following a meeting of the executive board. Great Britain was disqualified following CJ Ujah's doping violation.

"It was the difference between bronze and gold," Brown said over the phone from Birmingham. "We have the leg speed to compete with anybody in the world. It's a matter of finding our spacing [with the handoff] and being more consistent with it. The relay is like a dance and every step is crucial. If you're one step out of place, it throws off the entire routine and it's hard to recover.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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