TORONTO — Andre De Grasse spent many of his Friday nights and weekends while in high school at the Yonge Street Mission in rough-and-tumble Regent Park.
Like every Ontario high schooler, De Grasse was required to do 40 hours of community service. He enjoyed his time at the Yonge Street Mission (YSM) — where his brother Julian Waithe was a social worker — so much, he continued to volunteer long after he’d logged his 40 hours, commuting from Markham to one of the city’s most vulnerable neighbourhoods.
De Grasse would help set the tables for dinner. He’d hand out pamphlets about YSM’s support programs. He’d organize sports activities in the gym. He’d mentor kids.
“(YSM) gave kids a place to come in and stay away from trouble, work on their homework, play sports … they can play video games or cards or whatever they want to do. It’s a way to get away from the outside noise,” he said.
“I had lots of fun there, I ended up making some friends, a couple of them were really talented in sports. I still keep in touch with some of them.”
De Grasse launched his Andre De Grasse Family Foundation on Thursday, and the 23-year-old spoke about the opportunity to give back in a bigger way, and the ability to empower kids through sport.
“It just feels good,” De Grasse said. “I feel like being in the U.S. (De Grasse trains in Phoenix), I see there’s a lot of support with foundations, and people I’ve met along the way, and in Canada I haven’t seen much of that, so I wanted to just be a part of that, not just in track, but in general whether it’s basketball or soccer, any sport I can help out with, where kids need it.”
The foundation’s first initiative is its scholarship program that will provide Ontario high school athletes with funds for club registration, meet entry, uniforms, equipment, accommodation and travel. The scholarship will also include coaching or coach mentorship support from Tony Sharpe, who’s twice won Athletics Canada’s development coach of the year award, a strength training program designed and delivered by Toronto Maple Leafs strength and conditioning coach Peter Renzetti, plus nutrition and chiropractic care, and academic consultation.
De Grasse made the announcement at the Toronto Track & Field Centre at York University where Sharpe first famously spotted the talented teenager running a high school meet in baggy basketball shorts.
Seven years later, De Grasse has developed into the face of Canadian track and field. He captured double gold at the 2015 Pan American Games at Toronto’s York University. The third-year pro sprinter arrived for an interview at York in a metallic blue Jaquar, on loan while he’s in Toronto.
He’s also about to become a dad — he and girlfriend Nia Ali, who met while running track at USC, are expecting a baby in July.
De Grasse plans to be hands-on with his foundation, at least during the off-season, when he and Sharpe will run clinics as part of the mandate to help promising young athletes.
“I wanted to be able to have a foundation and be able to pay it forward and give back,” De Grasse said. ”I was able to get the resources and be able to make it to that next level, so if other kids can have that opportunity I had, you’re going to be able to see a lot more kids in Canada be able to run fast and jump far.
“A lot of people wait until the end of their career to do it, and I said ‘Why not just start it now, while I’m hot and I’m relevant in the world?’ It will be easier to do that now while I’m competing, and when I finish my career, I can expand it.”
De Grasse and Sharpe plan to run clinics in the off-season. Sharpe said he’s proud De Grasse wants to give back to the community. Last year, the sprinter paid the tab for two of Sharpe’s young sprinters — Daquan Berry and Ethan Smith — to travel to U.S. national indoor high school championships in New York.
“(What’s) exciting is that he is giving something tangible, not just speaking words of motivation and inspiration,” Sharpe said. “These funds will actually go towards helping kids leverage their athletic talent and academic success and later become productive citizens in their communities. He is helping to change lives.”
De Grasse’s mom Beverley will help run the foundation.
“I’m proud of all of Andre’s accomplishments, but to see him using his success as a platform to inspire and empower others is very special to me,” she said.
On the track, meanwhile, De Grasse is still finding his racing rhythm after a nine-month break to rehabilitate the hamstring injury that knocked him out of last summer’s world championships. He raced three times before the decision was made to pull back. He withdrew from last weekend’s Prefontaine Classic. His next meet will be the Harry Jerome International Track Classic, June 26-27, in Burnaby, B.C.
“Right now we’re trying to just come back where we can do a little bit of smaller meets, just to see where I’m at. Then we can hop back into the Diamond Leagues if I’m ready,” said De Grasse.
“I hadn’t competed in nine months, so … I don’t have the experience to go out there and run with those guys because they’ve all been running, they have the rhythm. I had to try to build that back up, and it’s been taking me awhile to do that. It’s a little bit of a setback but it’s part of the sport, it’s part of what helps you be better.
“So for me it’s just all about still being confident, and still having that motivational factor to just keep going.”
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press