Andre De Grasse on Toronto Rap, Harry Potter, and the Quest for Olympic Gold
The Canadian sprint star chats about everything from Toronto hip-hop to Sonic the Hedgehog to wanting to become the world's fastest man at the Tokyo Olympics.
Image via Getty/ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP
“I’m not that kid anymore,” says Canadian track star Andre De Grasse.
The 26-year-old is reflecting on how life has changed since his epic run at the 2016 Rio Games, when he became the first Canuck athlete to win Olympic medals in all three sprint events. There were the two bronzes in the 100 metres and the 4x100-metre relay, respectively, and the silver in the 200. There was also his undeniable bromance with Usain Bolt, summed up by the now-iconic grins the Jamaican sprint legend and then-21-year-old flashed each other while crossing the finish line in 200-metre semifinal. The moment launched a thousand memes, and instantly sealed De Grasse’s status as the next fastest man up.
Five years later, things look a lot different for the Markham, Ontario native. De Grasse married Nia Ali—the U.S.’ reigning world-champion hurdler—and had two kids. His career was momentarily derailed by hamstring injuries, robbing him of a final duel with Bolt at the 2017 world championships. Speaking of Bolt, the friendship between the two apparently hasn’t aged well, with the eight-time gold medalist hinting he felt “disrespected” when the Canadian pushed him in the Rio semifinals. Regardless, now healthy, Andre is the face of Canadian track. And that face is everywhere, from magazine covers to Gatorade bottles to Cheerios boxes. He’s as household name as they come.
“I feel like I’m more busy now,” he says. “When I first got into the sport, I was just focused on track. Now, I’ve gotta balance a lot more things, whether it’s fatherhood or sponsors or doing commercials and PR and all those other things. I’m just trying to balance my life in that way. I have more obligation, more responsibility.”
More responsibility is right—as the Tokyo Olympics near, not only is he carrying the weight of Canada on his back, he’s now faced with the pressure of living up to his own name. All the hype that’s been building around De Grasse over the last half-decade has been leading up to this: his chance to lay claim to the title of fastest man on the planet. With Bolt now retired, the crown is within his grasp.
But Andre’s not stressing. When we chat prior to his trip to Tokyo, he’s all laughs, more than happy to chop it up about non-Olympic matters, from Netflix movies to video game characters to underground hip-hop. Talk to anyone close to De Grasse and they’ll tell you that’s his secret weapon: his ability to brush off the nerves, drown out the noise, and have fun in the moment. While he may be a grown-ass man, he’s still a kid at heart. He runs with a flawless stride because no one’s been able to break it.
In our wide-ranging conversation, De Grasse talks about, well, everything: Harry Potter, Kobe Bryant, Toronto’s hip-hop scene, and his desire to bring Olympic gold back to Canada. The interview, edited and condensed for clarity, is below.
I know basketball was your first love. Who was your hoop hero growing up?
Kobe had a huge impact on me. I’ve watched him since I was a kid. I remember I always used to watch those NBA Hardwood Classics, watching Kobe versus Allen Iverson, because he was one of my favorite players too. I used to model my game after AI, so that was always a cool series to watch. And then, of course, as Kobe got older, I just kept watching him play. He’s my guy, man. I mean, I’m in this generation with LeBron, and I like LeBron too, but Kobe’s just a different animal.
So, at what point did you realize basketball wasn’t your thing and running actually was?
I think when I stopped growing, to be honest. [Laughs.] I was kind of the same height that I am now when I was in high school. Back then that was a good height, but after that you gotta grow for college. It’s hard to take it to the next level at 5’10. Once I realized, Damn, I’m not going to be six feet, the hoop dream was pretty much over for me. So I was like, Alright, track is going good. I’m running pretty good times, like Olympic times. Once I figured out it was a lot easier for me to get a scholarship for track than basketball, I kinda just ran with it.
Ran with it! Literally.
[Laughs.] Yeah, yeah, literally. They offered me a scholarship and I was like, Well, I guess I’m going to the U.S. I’m out of here.
Can you pinpoint the moment when you were like, Oh fuck, I can really run! I’m really good at this.
Yeah, definitely. [Laughs.] I mean, shoot, it was probably when I got a second scholarship to go out to Division I at USC. I remember watching USC for basketball—those guys had ballers like O.J. Mayo, DeMar DeRozan, Nick Young, all these top players. And I was like, Damn, they recruited me for track.This is crazy! And then you watch the movie Love & Basketball and all those things. I took a visit out there and that’s when I realized, Man, I can really take this far because I feel like I shouldn’t be here right now.Like, damn, I’m in L.A! I’m living the dream over here.I was like, This is it for me. If you made it this far to get here, then you could probably get a professional career out of this. That’s when I realized I could go far in this.
“I just know when I won bronze and silver, everyone in Canada was going crazy. So I can only imagine if I win gold that it’s gonna be even crazier.”
And now you’re an Olympic medalist. A multi-medalist! And you’re about to compete in your next Olympics. You’ve come a long way, man. Where’s your head at going into Tokyo?
I mean, for me, it’s a dream come true to even experience one Olympics. I’m like, Man, I can’t believe I did that. I went to my first Olympics, won three Olympic medals, and here I am. I’m about to go to my second Olympics. I never want to take that for granted because it doesn’t come along often. It really comes along once. A lot of people, they’re lucky to get one. So I feel like I’m in a good headspace mentally. I’m feeling good. My training has been going well. I’m just ready. Even though this Olympics is going to be a little bit different with the pandemic and there might not be as many fans in the stadium, I just want to make the best of it, have a successful Games, and try to come away with some medals.
After the Rio Games in 2016, Usain Bolt told you he thinks you’re going to be the next fastest man in the world. What was it like to hear that from him? What did it do for you mentally?
I think it just gave me a lot of confidence. When the fastest man ever says that type of stuff about you… It’s kinda crazy because, you know, track wasn’t really my thing. I never really chose track. So for him to just say that, it’s just like, Damn, wow. You saying this about me? That’s crazy because I never thought about it that way. But now it just makes me want to go harder. It makes me have all the confidence in the world that maybe I really can be the best in this sport. So I just try to do the best I can not to waste my talent that God gave me. I tell people that I never chose track—track chose me. So if I got the talent, I gotta go after it. This gift of speed is crazy. I just have to harness it and keep going and keep working hard. It’s pretty cool that he said that about me. I just want to try to live up to that hype.
Do you and Bolt still talk? Do you guys text?
[Laughs.] Nah, nah, nah. That was just a one-time thing, to be honest. I never really talked to him like that off the track. When we were on the track, he might’ve just said some words to me. But yeah, that’s it. He’s retired now. He’s done. [Laughs.] So he’s just doing his own thing.
Well, I gotta ask: Do you believe you’ve got what it takes to become the world’s fastest man? I know there’s some intense competition this year with guys like Noah Lyles and Kenny Bednarek out there. Do you feel you’re at a place now where this can really happen?
I feel like I’ve got a great shot. I mean, of course there’s a lot of great competitors out there, but I’ve just gotta go out there and execute the race. That’s the most important thing. I gotta show up on that day and make it happen. It’s gonna be tough, but that’s what I train for every day, to be in that situation, to be in that spotlight. And hopefully on that day, I can just get the job done and say to myself that I did my best and I’m happy with the results. I’m just excited to race against those guys. I’m excited to be there. I’m excited to just get the opportunity to compete to be the fastest man in the world.
It’s been a long while since we could say that the fastest man in the world was Canadian. If you win gold, what do you think it would do for Canada? What impact would it have?
I have no idea. [Laughs.] I’m hoping that I could bring joy to Canadians and everybody can be proud of that, if I can do it. I hear stories from back in the day in 1996, when Donovan Bailey did it—when I was like two years old at the time. I hear stories about how he was the last guy to do it and win a gold medal. And the country went crazy. So I’m just hoping I could bring that joy and that fulfillment to the country and just say I did it and everyone’s proud of me. I’m just gonna go out there and try my best, put in the work, and hope I can do that. But I don’t know what the result will be. I just know when I won bronze and silver, everyone in Canada was going crazy. So I can only imagine if I win gold that it’s gonna be even crazier. That’s what I’m hoping for.
What’s fatherhood changed for you?
I mean, of course it’s giving me more motivation. I feel like I want to create a legacy for my kids. Let them know I worked hard, I accomplished this, so that when they get older, they know what their daddy has done. So I just try to create a legacy for them and show them that hard work pays off and go follow your dreams, pursue them. So I think that’s changed me a lot. Just knowing that, you know, someone’s depending on me and I’m not just doing this for myself. That motivates me every single day to keep going hard.
I know you just had a second kid. When Fred VanVleet’s second child was born during the 2019 playoffs, he broke out of his shooting slump and started lighting up the league…
[Laughs.] Yeah, I’m hoping that happens for me. I mean, I think it just creates a buzz, like you’re just happy and you’re in the moment. That’d be big man, for sure. Just having my kids watch me on TV at the Olympics, you know, just getting a chance to FaceTime them, having them wish me good luck. It just brings joy to my heart. So, I’m definitely just trying to have that effect and come away with some medals.
“Pressa’s a guy I used to listen to when no one knew him, when he was super underground.”
See, if I had the weight of a nation on my shoulders, I would not be able to sleep. I know you’ve partnered with Canadian mattress brand Endy to talk about the importance of rest and recovery. I suffer from insomnia, especially if I have a big day coming up—there’s just too much adrenaline coursing through my veins. Does that ever happen to you before a big race?
Umm… yeah. [Laughs.] It used to happen to me a lot. But now I just take some magnesium pills and that relaxes my body and puts me to sleep. Or I’ll try to watch something light on TV to take my mind off of it, like something on Netflix, and it helps me fall asleep before the race so I’m not thinking about it that much. But it’s definitely tough. It would happen to me all the time. But luckily if it did happen to me, the races weren’t until nighttime, so if I didn’t get in as much sleep that night then I would sleep during the day. [Laughs.] But it’s very hard. Even nowadays, it sometimes still happens. So I gotta watch something light on Netflix.
What do you usually put on to fall asleep?
Just something light, with not much action because that will stimulate my mind too much. I just try to watch something that’s boring that I’ll fall asleep to, that has a lot of talking. As an example, no offense to Harry Potter—like, Harry Potter is a good movie, I love it—but sometimes it has a lot of talking. So, that was the last movie I fell asleep to. The movie’s like three hours long, and then sometimes there’s a lot of talking, so that helps me fall asleep. Especially when it’s super late.
Yeah. There’s definitely a lot of dialogue in those films. Hufflepuffs this and Quidditch that…
Yeah, yeah. So if you watch that, it might help. [Laughs.] But Harry Potter is a great series. I loved it, but sometimes, yeah, it just helps me sleep. [Laughs.] Not saying that in a bad way, like I fell asleep on it, but sometimes there’s parts where they talk a lot. So I’ll fall asleep. I still love the series, though! Some of the movies have more action, and some of them have more talking leading up to the next movie.
Which Harry Potter character do you identify with the most?
[Laughs.] Umm, I like Draco. He’s just a character, yo! He’s funny. I feel like the guy’s a good actor. Like, he’s cool. And, of course, whenever Voldemort makes an appearance, that’s super cool. He doesn’t make an appearance all the time, so whenever you see him it’s like, “Alright, finally! He’s out here!”
So you like all the evil guys!
[Laughs.] Yeah, yeah, yeah. It just makes it more entertaining, right?
You’ve gotta get PUMA to make you a Voldemort shoe!
Yeah, we’ll see. [Laughs.] That’d be crazy. Some Tom Riddles. Maybe, we’ll see.
Did PUMA make you a custom pair for Tokyo?
Oh yeah, I’mma have some custom spikes. I’m actually gonna be coming out with some limited edition spikes, only in Canada. So all the runners out there will be able to get a pair of my spikes. I think I’m only coming out with 100 pairs, actually, right before the Games. It’s called the Tokyo Brush. It’ll have my name on the insole and across the sole. Obviously it’s a little bit different than basketball shoes. It’s going to be strictly for people who actually run track.
Those Sonic the Hedgehog ones you came out with a while ago were fire.
Yeah, we did a Sonic one! Because the Sonic movie was coming out at that time and they did a collaboration with PUMA. And so I asked them to make me a PUMA Sonic spikes collaboration for the World Championship in Doha.
Are you a big Sonic guy? He’s my favourite.
Oh yeah! I loved playing the video game on the Nintendo GameCube back in the day. Getting those rings! [Laughs.] I’m a big fan of Sonic. He’s one of my favorite speed characters outside of the Flash, from a cartoon standpoint. Sonic is cool. That’s why I just had to ask PUMA, “We gotta do this collaboration.” But I’m gonna have a different pair this time around. I don’t know which I’m going to wear yet, because I got two custom ones. There’s the one I’m releasing in stores and then there’s another limited edition one that’s not dropping in stores, but it’s a collaboration with Mercedes-AMG. So I just don’t know which one I’m gonna wear yet.
“I like the pressure. I like being able to live up to expectations. I like to prove myself and I like to keep getting better. I like being in that spotlight, the bright lights, because this has never happened to me before.”
What music have you been listening to to get in the zone? What will be your pump-up track on the big day?
The last thing I listened to was J. Cole’s new album The Off Season. I’ve been bumping that. That and DJ Khaled’s new album. But I just listen to whoever is in the moment, like who’s coming out. I listen to a lot of Canadian artists as well, of course, like Drake and the Weekend. A lot of underground Toronto artists too.
Have you met Drake?
Yeah, I met Drake. He invited me to his concert in L.A., but I mostly talked to his boys. All his boys are cool. I’m really cool with one of them, Charlie B; he’s mad cool. Whenever I’m in Toronto, we link up. But yeah, most of the time, everyone’s just so busy. So when I talked to Drake it was just a quick thing. “Yo, what’s up, man? How you doing? You’re doing your thing?” Just small talk. And then everyone just ends up talking to each other’s friends. [Laughs.]
Which underground guys are you bumping?
Guys like July. I really like July. We have guys who are kinda underground, but they’re not really underground because they’re now starting to come up. Like, I know Pressa is starting to come up in his music now. But I’m listening to guys who are under him, like July or like Adrian Duncan—just people who I grew up with or that I know from the neighborhood, like a friend of a friend. There’s a lot of good talent out there in the city but people don’t really hear from them because we only hear about the big artists. So, I just like to listen to the artists who are now coming up.
That’s cool, man! Pressa’s definitely been having a good run. He seems on the verge of blowing up.
Yeah. Pressa’s a guy I used to listen to when no one knew him, when he was super underground. I like listening to a lot of stuff like that because now I see the progress, now they’re starting to blow up, now they’re starting to make songs that are on the radio. It’s just a cool feeling. I knew [Pressa] as a friend of a friend. Your friends are always telling you of friends of friends, and they’re like, “Oh, did you hear this guy’s music? He’s going to be nice! He’s going to be good in a couple of years. Better know who he is!” [Laughs.]
This is a good segue, because you’ve kinda been blowing up too. Over the last five years, you’ve pretty much reached household name status. People know your face. Everyone knows who you are—you’re Andre De Grasse, Canada’s Olympic superstar. So, I’m wondering, going into Tokyo, do you at all feel pressure to live up to this name you’ve made for yourself?
Umm, yeah, I guess. But I mean, I like the pressure. I like being able to live up to expectations. I like to prove myself and I like to keep getting better. I like being in that spotlight, the bright lights, because this has never happened to me before. So it’s cool. [Laughs.] It’s cool to be in that situation. I wanna just try to deliver. It’s what I work hard every day for, train six days a week for. I work hard to deliver in that situation where I can make myself proud, make my family proud, make my country proud. I mean, of course there’s going to be pressure. But I know what to expect. I’ve dealt with pressure before, multiple times. I felt it when I won the Pan Am Games in Toronto and then was able to make history and become the first Canadian sprinter to win three Olympic medals [in a single Games]. So, I think I’m just used to that. I love trying to deliver in that moment. I don’t let the pressure get to me, I just embrace it.
So you feed off the pressure. You feast on it!
Yeah, it just helps me. It feels like a Game 7. You just want to be in that scenario—a win-or-go-home type of thing. I like being in that moment because when there’s nothing on the line, it’s kinda hard to get motivated. When there’s something on the line, I feel like I thrive off of that. It’s like when you make a bet with a friend—you just wanna win that bet! [Laughs.] So I thrive off the feeling of like, OK, the reward is going to be huge if I kill this. That’s what I hope for and dream for. When the stakes are high, will you fold or will you perform?
Well, hopefully you channel Kawhi in Game 7 versus Philly.
Yeah! [Laughs.] Or I’d say I wanna channel Kobe, man. That Mamba mentality. That’s how I look at it. I guess when he played the Boston Celtics in 2010… That one went to Game 7, right? Hold up, let me look this up. [Googles the game on his phone.] Yeah, it did. That was a good series. I’d channel that.