TORONTO – The smile was priceless, a rare spontaneous moment in the Olympic pressure cooker that will go down as one of the most enduring images of the Rio Summer Games.
Andre De Grasse had cruised up alongside Usain Bolt in their 200-metre semifinal and flashed the Jamaican giant a wide grin. The slender, five-foot-nine De Grasse could have been the precocious little brother challenging the six-foot-five big brother. Bolt couldn’t help but crack a smile.
It may as well have been a race between just two. Behind them, six other sprinters strained to keep up.
In his Olympic debut, and just his second true season in the sport, the 21-year-old dared to race the greatest sprinter of all time, and his youthful charm had Canadian fans smitten.
De Grasse, who raced to three Olympic medals in Rio, has been voted the winner of the Lionel Conacher Award as the Canadian Press male athlete of 2016.
“I just try to have a lot of fun when I’m competing because I know how hard it is during training,” De Grasse said. “And there are always going to be ups and downs with sports, but I have to remember to always just be motivated because I know I inspire a lot of people, and I want to show them it’s a fun sport, I want to lift up the sport, especially in Canada.”
The Markham, Ont., sprinter earned 43 votes (66 per cent) in the annual survey of editors and broadcasters from across the country.
De Grasse won silver in the 200 metres in Rio and bronze in both the 100 and 4×100-metre relay.
“No Canadian has ever done that,” said CBC’s Scott Russell. “De Grasse competes in the deepest of all sports. He competed against the greatest sprinter of all time. In addition, he helped erase a 20-year-old Canadian record in the 4×100-metre relay which had been held by a squad anchored by Donovan Bailey and which resulted in Olympic Gold in 1996.”
Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby was second with 18 votes (28 per cent).
“Sidney Crosby is an amazing athlete so any time I’m in the conversation with him, that feels pretty good,” De Grasse said from Phoenix. “I’m really happy to win the award.”
High jumper Derek Drouin, who won gold in Rio, earned two votes, while Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers and tennis star Milos Raonic each received one.
“In any other year, it could have gone to Derek Drouin or Milos Raonic or Sidney Crosby or Joey Votto or . . . But Andre De Grasse did something we haven’t seen in a generation and he did it with such a sense of enjoyment,” said Bev Wake, Postmedia’s senior executive producer of sports. “With Usain Bolt the best sprinter in history, finishing second in the 200-metre race was almost as good as gold.”
What made De Grasse’s feat truly remarkable, according to coach Stu McMillan, is that it came in just his second year of solid training at the end of a season that saw several significant life changes. He turned pro at this time last season, signing a historic US$11.25-million deal with Puma. He also left the University of Southern California to move to Phoenix to train with McMillan and the Altis program. His training environment exploded from the one sprinter he worked with at USC to being part of a program that is home to about 100 of the world’s top athletes.
“That he was able to come out of that season with all of those things on top of him, and still have three Olympic medals is pretty incredible really,” McMillan said.
De Grasse, who once had dreams of playing in the NBA and played against Minnesota Timberwolves star Andrew Wiggins growing up, was famously discovered by track coach Tony Sharpe at a high school meet he raced on a whim. He made the track world sit up and take notice in 2015 when he won both the 100 and 200 at the NCAA championships and the Pan American Games in Toronto.
He carries himself with a refreshing naivete that McMillan believes helped pave his path to the Olympic podium.
“He doesn’t really understand how good he is, and he doesn’t know the sport really well. He doesn’t understand how difficult this is supposed to be. Which is a good thing,” McMillan said. “Coming in with fresh eyes I think. . . it’s actually taught me quite a lot. I’m used to coaching people who have been in the sport for multiple years, and have their pre-set expectations of what they should be doing, and what is possible. And then he comes in and blows it all up. That was pretty cool.”
De Grasse recently completed his sociology degree at USC, keeping a promise he made to his mom. He celebrated his graduation with a couple of friends in Las Vegas, and is now back in Phoenix training with McMillan for the upcoming season.
He said the magnitude of his accomplishments didn’t sink in until well after Rio.
“It really hit me when I went home and I saw the reaction from a lot of the fans that watched me in Rio, and just being at home in Toronto and getting lot of love whenever I go places, that’s when I kind of realized what I had accomplished,” De Grasse said. “A lot of people were like ‘Oh you’re going to be the next Olympic gold medallist.’
“I have to remember that even though all these people are telling me this I still have to continue to work hard and accomplish that because it’s not going to be overnight. But it really feels good to make a lot of those people proud and especially my family and friends, they’re really proud of what I accomplished in such a short time.”
Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price was last year’s winner of the Conacher Award, which has been handed out since 1932 and is named for the all-rounder voted Canada’s athlete of the half-century in 1950. The illustrious list of past winners also includes Steve Nash, who won it three times, Crosby (three), and Wayne Gretzky (seven). Bailey was the last track and field athlete to win it in 1996.
The winner of the Bobbie Rosenfeld Award as female athlete of the year will be revealed Tuesday.