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TOKYO — When Andre De Grasse paused to think about what propelled him to run down the track faster than any man on the planet, he broke down and sobbed.
The Canadian sprint star is golden -- finally -- racing to victory in the men's 200 metres at the Tokyo Olympics and cementing his place among the all-time great sprinters.
Moments after he'd sailed down the straightaway and leaned at the line for a Canadian-record time of 19.62 seconds, then wrapped himself in the Canadian flag, he was able to connect to his family back in Jacksonville, Fla., thanks to a giant video screen. He grinned at his ecstatic girlfriend Nia Ali, her son Titus, their three-year-old daughter Yuri and their new baby son.
"It was special. Seeing Nia, seeing my kids, seeing how hard that I did this for them . . . I'm just so proud. I'm so proud of myself," De Grasse said, his voice breaking. "This is for them. Of course I put a lot of expectations on myself. But I just do it for my family, I do it for my kids."
Gold was the one major international medal missing from De Grasse's collection. The 26-year-old from Markham, Ont., raced to bronze in the 100 metres on Monday in Tokyo, and captured a silver and two bronze in 2016 in Rio. He's raced to a silver and three bronze over the 2015 and '19 world championships.
"I always felt like I came up short winning bronze and silver, so it's just good to just have that gold medal. No one can take that away from me," said De Grasse.
Kenneth Bednarek took silver in 19.68 seconds and fellow American Noah Lyles earned bronze in 19.74. Aaron Brown of Toronto was sixth in 20.20.
Winning his fifth Olympic medal — and his second in Tokyo after taking bronze in the 100 metres — ties De Grasse with Phil Edwards for the most by a Canadian track and field athlete. Edwards captured five bronze medals between 1928 and 1936.
De Grasse's victory comes 25 years — plus a week — after Donovan Bailey raced to 100-metre gold at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
Crossing the line, he flexed his arms and did a high-kneed dance. He then collapsed to the track, looking to the sky, tears welling up behind his wraparound gold shades.
"My heart was racing. I don't think my heart's ever felt like that in my life. I thought I was going to pass out for a second," he said. "I was trying to keep my emotions in. All the things that I’ve been through, leading up to this moment. I was just trying to keep it all in . . . I just was so happy and so proud of myself, that I finally did it. Yeah, I was just waiting for this moment, man. This moment. I was just speechless."
It's a long way from the high school track where De Grasse, better known as a top basketball prospect who counted Andrew Wiggins among his rivals, was spotted by track coach Tony Sharpe. The story is well-told of a scrawny De Grasse, racing in baggy basketball shorts, without starting blocks, and winning. Sharpe saw something special in De Grasse.
"Of course, Tony reminds me (of that) every day," De Grasse said, laughing, before erupting in tears once again. "He and I are going to have a big moment when I get back home but I know he's proud of me. And I just thank him for getting me into this sport. Tony, I appreciate you man, I love you man, and I finally did it. I finally did it."
The years since saw De Grasse work his way up through Coffeyville College in Kansas, to the USC Trojans, where he met Ali, the reigning world 100-metre hurdles champion.
His mom Beverley said a few days before Tokyo she's proud of the father her son is. De Grasse told reporters on Wednesday night how Titus is "hyper energetic" and loves to run.
"I come home from practice, he always wants to race me. I tell him 'I'm tired, man. I’m tired.' But of course (I race him) and let him win."
Yuri loves to wear his gold shades in the house. She puts them on mimics him taking a deep breath before stepping into the blocks.
When De Grasse turned pro, he signed a multi-year deal with Puma worth US$11.25 million plus bonuses, the richest college-to-pro contract in track and field history.
Money well spent.
His high-tech gold-medal lightweight Puma spikes with the silver soles actually arrived at the interview area in Olympic Stadium before De Grasse did on Wednesday, thanks to a media relations person carrying his gear. Canadian reporters marvelled at the historic size-nine footwear.
His climb to the top of the podium hasn't been all smooth sailing. A hamstring injury kept him out of the 2017 world championships, where he was expected to battle Usain Bolt in the Jamaican superstar's final appearance. Then the COVID-19 pandemic had him practising on a soccer field last summer in Florida and shut out of the weight room for weeks.
De Grasse, who will also run the 4x100 relay in Tokyo, isn't sure when he'll get back to Canada due to travel restrictions around the pandemic. But Ali definitely wants him home in Florida soon.
"My girlfriend is like 'Hurry up and come home,'" he said. "I’ve been gone for like six weeks, 'like they're driving me crazy.' So of course for her like she's trying to get back into the sport, so she can’t wait for me to come home and play some fatherhood."
Canada had two men in the 200-metre final for the first time since 1928, when Percy Williams took gold and teammate John Fitzpatrick finished fifth.
Brown, 29, was racing in his first individual Olympic final. He was on the 4x100 relay team with De Grasse that captured bronze in 2016 in Rio.
"Man, it’s amazing," Brown said of De Grasse's gold. "To have us be number one in the event, in sprints, just bodes well for us in the future. And I’m looking forward to the relay, because he goes from being my rival to being my teammate. 'Go Andre!' Versus in this race, where it was like, 'Andre get back here!'"
Brown raced with a picture of his wife Preeya Milburn and their young son Kingsley pinned inside his bib number.
Canada's Damian Warner, meanwhile, opened his quest for an Olympic decathlon title in emphatic fashion and led at the halfway point.
The 31-year-old from London, Ont., got off to a great start, tying his decathlon world best in the men's 100 metres of 10.12. Then, 30 minutes later, Warner crushed the field in the long jump, soaring 8.24 metres, the longest in Olympic decathlon history and a distance that would have earned him a bronze medal in the open men's long jump earlier in the week.
Warner, who watched the 200 final from track level, said he felt a connection to De Grasse finally winning gold after so many silver and bronze.
"I know how tough that can be, because I've been in that situation, but he's been doing it against really tough competition, and it's really cool to kind of see him persevere and go out there and finally win," Warner said. "Now he's the top dog that other people will be chasing and hopefully I can follow in his footsteps tomorrow."
Warner's lead diminished after the shot put, in which he finished 11th, and the high jump (eighth). But he rebounded with the third-best time in the 400 metres at 47.48 seconds to enter the halfway point in top spot with 4,722 points.
Australian Ashley Moloney, who had the best time in the 400, was second with 4,529 points.
Canadian teammate Pierce LePage also impressed over the first five events and was in third place with 4,529 points.
LePage, from Whitby, Ont., ran the 100 in 10.43, the third-fastest time on the morning. His 7.65 metres in long jump was second-best, and his throw of 15.31 in shot put was fourth. To cap the day, he posted the second-best 400 time at 46.92 seconds while running in a fast heat with Warner and Moloney.
Warner is the No. 1-ranked decathlete in the world this year after shattering his Canadian record at the Hypo-Meeting in Gotzis, Austria. His score of 8,995 there was the fourth best in history.
Warner's Canadian record performance in May came after a winter of training in an unheated hockey arena in London. COVID-19 protocols shut down the University of Western Ontario indoor track facility, so his coaches outfitted the arena with a 40-metre track runway, pole vault and high jump pits, and a throwing circle.
The decathletes are facing gruelling conditions in Tokyo. The temperature at Olympic Stadium at 9 a.m. for the 100 metres was already 33 C, but felt like 47 C with the humidity.
Thursday's weather forecast calls for sun and a high of 35 C.
The decathlon features 10 events over two days. The 400 metres was the final event on Wednesday. Thursday's Day 2 events are the 110-metre hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin and the 1,500 metres.
In other events, Geneviève Lalonde of Moncton, N.B., was 11th in the women's 3,000 steeplechase, shaving a couple of tenths of a second off her Canadian record to run 9:22.40.
Gabriela DeBues-Stafford clinched her spot in the women's 1,500 final by finishing third in her semi in a season's best 3:58.28. Her time was the third fastest on the night in the fastest semifinal in Olympic history with five women dipping under the four-minute mark.
Her younger sister Lucia Stafford was sixth in her semifinal (a personal best 4:02.12) and didn't advance.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 4, 2021.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press