One of the most memed moments at the 2016 Olympics in Rio didn’t come in a gold-medal race or match but in a semifinal heat of the men’s 200-metre sprint. Usain Bolt, believing he’s cruising to a comfortable victory, looks over his shoulder to see the Canadian sprinter Andre De Grasse suddenly closing the gap—smiling mischievously all the way. Bolt flashes a starry grin back at Andre, then wags a finger as though to say: “Not yet, my friend.”
In the 200-metre final the next evening, Bolt and Andre repeated their one-two finish, Andre capturing the silver with an astonishing show of late-breaking speed. Along with bronze medals in the 100 and 4 x 100 metres, Andre would return home as the most decorated Canadian runner ever at a single Olympic Games.
Few sprinters have arrived so suddenly, and with such dramatic results, on the international stage. Andre ran his first competitive race only four years earlier, when he was seventeen. Invited by a friend to see him compete at a high school track meet, Andre told him he’d rather race than watch. Wearing borrowed spikes and baggy basketball shorts, he took off from a standing start. He came second with a time of 10.9 seconds.
Tony Sharpe, a respected track coach and Olympic bronze medalist, was in the stands. He quickly took Andre under his wing, recognizing an extraordinary talent in someone he otherwise described as “a little, skinny, average guy.” Sharpe pointed Andre to the right junior college in the United States, from where he would eventually be recruited to run for the University of Southern California on a scholarship. At USC Andre would come into his own, winning gold in the 100 and 200 metres at the 2015 National Collegiate Athletic Association championships, running both races within an hour. Three months later he would win bronze in the 100 metres at the World Championships in Beijing.
“I didn’t believe I could be one of the fastest guys in the world, right? But Tony made me believe it was possible, and it kind of inspired me to not let him down.”
If Andre’s quick ascent to Olympic medalist has turned heads, so has his unorthodox running style. At 5 foot 9, he’s already shorter, leaner, and more compact than most of his rivals, but kinesiologists have focused on something else: his propensity to fully extend—almost fling—his right arm backward, while runners typically keep their arms bent at both sides. It’s been dubbed “the Andre Arm” and is likely his body’s way of compensating for an imbalance in his hips caused by an old basketball injury.
At twenty-three he’s still three years away from the age at which most sprinters achieve their peak performance.
Away from the track he’s working on creating his own charitable foundation. The value of giving back struck a chord with him during a recent trip to Chile, which was organized by his sponsor, Puma. Andre was shocked to discover that he has fans so far from home. “Seeing the fans in Canada support me was pretty big. But in Chile, that was an epic moment.”
And what advice did Andre have for them? “You live and learn, right? It’s okay to make mistakes. They’re what make you who you are.”