By Lori Ewing
LONDON — World medals. One last shot at Usain Bolt. Perhaps a Canadian record.
A world championships that had held so much promise for Andre De Grasse went up in smoke during a light 60-metre run on Monday night.
And on the eve of the opening round of the 100 metres, De Grasse’s coach Stuart McMillan talked about the opportunities lost.
“I think when (the meet) actually gets going and Andre sees the final and sees those eight guys lining up and he’s not one of them, I think that’s when it’s really going to hit home,” McMillan said Thursday.
But as much as the star sprinter’s withdrawal from the meet with a hamstring injury means personal heartbreak for the 22-year-old from Markham, Ont., it’s a big blow to a Canadian team that saw De Grasse win three of its six medals at the Rio Olympics, and for fans back home as well.
“There’s two stories here: it’s Bolt’s last major championships, and then from a Canadian perspective, this was the opportunity for a Canadian boy to go out there and race him and potentially beat him in his last race,” McMillan said.
“So I think it’s going to be very disappointing for everybody — nobody more so than Andre.”
All signs pointed at a solid world championships for De Grasse. He was undefeated in the 100 and 200 in his last four Diamond League meets, and ran a sizzling, albeit wind-aided, 9.69 seconds over 100 metres in Stockholm.
“We definitely didn’t see anything coming,” McMillan said of the injury. “We had a really good camp in Monaco, went to Spain for a couple of days, we had a good relay session in Spain, we came here on Sunday, went to (Mile End Stadium) here in London on Monday, did four or five block starts, looked very good, everything was really nice, finished off with two very easy 60s, and in the first 60 at 40 metres he pulled up.”
They’d originally suspected the injury might just be cramping or tightness, but an ultrasound Tuesday showed a tear. His sponsor Puma then flew De Grasse to Munich to meet with Dr. Muller Wolfhart, who made the final diagnosis. De Grasse’s recovery is expected to take five to six weeks.
There had been plenty of hype about a Bolt versus De Grasse showdown at the world championships, which McMillan said has been wearing on the young Canadian sprinter.
“(But) in retrospect, in a few weeks, when he looks back on this, this was his last opportunity to beat Bolt,” McMillan said. “I think that’s probably going to be the thing that haunts him the most.”
In one of Rio’s most memorable moments, De Grasse pushed Bolt in their 200-metre semifinal, prompting a finger wag from the Jamaican superstar, who’ll retire after the world championships. Bolt hasn’t forgotten that race. When asked earlier this week to predict the world’s next great sprinter, Bolt said, “The last guy I said was going to be great disrespected me.”
General consensus was he was referring to De Grasse.
“Probably the past five to eight years, Bolt’s been used to people rolling over for him, and when Andre didn’t do that in the semifinal in Rio last year — Andre definitely meant no disrespect by that, but I think Bolt maybe took it a little bit differently,” McMillan said. “And since then, I think the relationship has been slightly different.
“But there’s absolutely zero disrespect from Andre to Usain. He’s got nothing but respect for him. Usain Bolt’s the best athlete who’s probably ever lived, and Andre will be the first to admit that.”
De Grasse had a strong shot at gold in the 200 metres, which Bolt isn’t racing in London. Canada’s 4×100-metre relay team, which De Grasse anchored to bronze at last summer’s Olympics, also took a huge hit with his withdrawal.
“It’s like if you took Donovan Bailey or Bruny Surin off the ’96 relay team” that won gold at the Atlanta Olympics, McMillan said.
De Grasse, whose mom Beverley and former coach Tony Sharpe were making the trip to London, is expected to remain in town until Monday or Tuesday and then likely head home to Toronto for treatment. The Puma CEO is taking him to watch Arsenal play Chelsea in Sunday’s Community Shield at Wembley Stadium.
“He’s looking forward to that, getting away from the track world for at least a couple of hours,” McMillan said.
The Canadian team, which has been on a roll since winning a record eight medals at the 2015 world championships, has to hope for strong performances from Damian Warner, the reigning silver medallist in the decathlon; world and Olympic high jump champion Derek Drouin, who’s been dealing with injuries; race walker Evan Dunfee; middle-distance runner Melissa Bishop; and Shawn Barber, the reigning world champion in the pole vault.
De Grasse’s injury will keep him out of the Diamond League Finals — the 100 on Aug. 24 in Zurich and the 200 on Sept. 1 in Brussels. Each final came with a US$50,000 first-place prize.
Looking long-term, McMillan believes the injury will be just a small blip on De Grasse’s career.
“Andre’s career has just started. Really, it’s the end of his second year of professional running… He could be running for another decade,” the coach said.
“Probably on the downside of this, next year is, in track and field, an off year. It’s not for Canada because we’ve got the Commonwealth Games, so where Commonwealth was probably going to be something fun for him, maybe now it’s a little bit more serious.
“I expect Andre comes out stronger from this, and we’re definitely going to learn, us as a team and me as a coach. I’m going to learn a lot from what’s gone on here in the last few days.”