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Sprinter Andre De Grasse by chance starts career on track for great finish

Basketball was Andre De Grasse's first love, but he became a man without a team when his suburban Toronto high school eliminated the program before his senior year.

Left adrift, he accepted an invitation to watch a friend compete in a regional track meet one day. Curious to see whether he was faster than his friend, De Grasse entered the 100-meter dash without proper gear or a clue on how to line up.

"I didn't have anything," he recalled. "I didn't have compression shorts or spikes. I was wearing some basketball shorts and Converse shoes. I didn't know how to use the starting blocks, what angle to put it at. So I said, 'I'm just going to stand up and run like I do in basketball.'

"It was funny. Some people laughed a lot."

But not for long.

Tony Sharpe, a 1984 Olympic 100-meter finalist and coach at the Speed Academy track club, was astonished when the kid with the awkward "head-in-the-air" form blazed to the finish line second, in 10.90 seconds.

"A walkup to run 10.9, that doesn't happen very often," Sharpe said. "I was like, 'Wow, that's pretty good for a kid I don't know,' because I'm a grass-roots type of guy and I know all the talent in clubs around the city, around the nation. So I started a conversation on who this kid was."

The question now is not who De Grasse is, but how far he's going. "If he puts it all together," Sharpe said, "we can see some crazy things."

After some polishing by Sharpe, two years at Coffeyville (Kansas) Community College and a year at USC under Coach Caryl Smith Gilbert, De Grasse is reaching lofty levels. In May, he became the Canadian record holder in the 200-meter sprint with a time of 20.03 seconds at the Pacific 12 Conference championships, and he won a sprint double at the NCAA championships in June.

He ran wind-aided times of 9.75 seconds in the 100 — the seventh-fastest time ever in any conditions — and 19.58 in the 200, sixth-fastest in any conditions. This month, he won the 100 at the Canadian championships with a time of 9.95, a personal best and a USC record.

Up next for him are the Pan Am championships this month in Toronto and World Championships next month in Beijing. His ultimate goal is to enjoy the success and popularity gained by Usain Bolt, the Olympic champion and world record holder in both sprints.

De Grasse raced against Bolt at last year's Commonwealth Games and was deeply impressed by the crowd's enthusiastic reaction to the charismatic Jamaican.

"I want to be able to, as soon as I walk out on the track, hear everyone is screaming, 'Whoo,' " De Grasse said. "I want to get the crowd pumped like that too one day. I know I've got a long way to go. I just started."

But what a start it has been. And Smith Gilbert — a three-time All-America as a sprinter at UCLA — thinks De Grasse can get there.

"I think Andre De Grasse is capable of doing whatever he wants to do," she said. "He's not just going to become a Usain Bolt superstar overnight. He's got to put in the effort, the time and the years, and I think he can do whatever he dreams to do. He has that kind of talent and he has tenacity. He just has to get some experience and more hard work under his belt.

"It's up to him how good he can be."

Those possibilities are gradually becoming more real for De Grasse, 20, who didn't think he'd be in such company so fast. "It's sunk in now," he said during a recent interview at USC's Cromwell Field.

Yet, Smith Gilbert sees the same humble kid she first met, one eager to learn and trusting enough to have become almost a fourth son to her. "He's real soft-spoken but I do see glimpses, when it's time to run and it's time to win, he's very aggressive. You throw the switch and he's a different guy," she said. "As soon as he crosses the line he's calm Andre."

De Grasse might have gotten his athletic genes from his mother, Beverley, a high-school sprinter in her native Trinidad, but the work to refine his talent was his initiative. He quickly advanced from a raw talent to a runner under Sharpe's guidance.

"Within two to three weeks he went to 10.5. That sort of progress, you just go, 'This is unbelievable,' " said Sharpe, who still works with him when De Grasse goes home to Canada. "I've got kids in high school, kids who don't run that over four years of high school and they're pretty good. I've got guys in national youth teams that haven't progressed to that over four years.

"Within a two- to three-month span this guy dominated all the high school kids. And then we got to understand what he wanted to do with his life, which at that point wasn't a whole lot. We set him on a path.

"It's not unusual to get kids who graduate high school and haven't taken right courses to go to university. When the track thing came about, that was really something to grab onto, and he appreciated the opportunity."

De Grasse, a sociology major, is taking two summer classes that will put him on track to graduate on time next year. "He has to probably work twice as hard as his classmates to be successful and he's doing just that," Sharpe said. "I hear really great stories about him being in the library all hours and really focusing on those books. I'm excited to see him graduate."

First, De Grasse's sights are set on the Pan Am Games, where he's scheduled to compete in the 100, 200 and 400-meter relay, and then the World meet, where he will run the 100 and the relay. His ambition is to break the Canadian 100-meter record of 9.84 seconds, set by Donovan Bailey and equaled by Bruny Surin. He said he prefers the 100 to the 200, though Sharpe and Smith Gilbert think he has the power and endurance to excel in the 200.

"I have to continue to be patient and I know it's going to come," De Grasse said. "I want to continue to keep progressing. I don't want to put too much pressure on myself, but I also want to go out there and win. A goal of mine is to win a gold medal at the Pan Am Games. And to try to contribute to my team and put Canada back to where it's talked about, because all the talk always is about Jamaica and the U.S. I want to go out there and make people realize Canada can run with these guys too."

He still loves basketball and believes he could have played at the Division I level, but he inadvertently found a better path the day he entered that 100-meter dash on a whim.

"Yeah, I think so," he said, smiling. "I made the right choice."

helene.elliott@latimes.com

Twitter: @helenenothelen

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