There’s a saying that you should never meet your heroes, but that didn’t cross the minds of Walnut Grove students Nicholas Monro, Bob Nicol, Evan Wright and David Midgley when they spotted Andre De Grasse’s neon shoes during a warm up at Burnaby’s Swangard Stadium.
The Grade 9 and 10 students, who make up the Junior Boys 4×100-metre relay team, immediately ran over and asked for the Olympian’s autograph and photo — an unconventional thing to request from a racing opponent.
The next time they saw De Grasse was in the starting blocks on the track, where they prepared to take on the silver and bronze medalist from Rio — and other Team Canada members Aaron Brown, Gavin Smellie and Bolande Ajomale — in the 4×100-metre race at the Harry Jerome International Track Classic on June 27.
It was the opportunity of a lifetime for the high school boys, who were grouped with the national runners after the high school section of the track meet was cancelled.
“Of course they destroyed us … that’s not the point, it’s just being there that’s really cool,” said Wright, who just completed Grade 10.
“Even racing with them in the same meet is really cool, but racing the same event as them is another level. And to have that actually happen … is an experience.”
The boys finished the race in seventh place with a time of 44.83 seconds, which was within two-tenths of their personal best as a team.
Team Canada, meanwhile, broke a 25-year meet record with the winning time of 38.42 seconds, a record previously held by the Americans. China came second at 39.62 seconds.
Considering what they were up against — De Grasse won three medals at the 2016 Rio Olympics — the Walnut Grove team kept it cool.
“Compared to other competitions it wasn’t that nerve-racking for me. It felt like we were both runners on the same track when it was actually happening,” said Nichol, who just completed Grade 10.
“They’re normal people, they’re just fast,” added Munro, who will start Grade 10 in September. “Andre and Aaron Brown, they’re just sort of like icons in the sprinting world.”
The opportunity came as a surprise to Walnut Grove track coach Don Sparks, who originally entered the Langley team in the high school race.
“It was a big thrill,” said Sparks. “It’s just an honour to get to run in that meet with those people.
“These guys were the youngest people there, so it was pretty remarkable even just to get them there.”
The competition was the cherry on top of a successful season for the team. The Jr. Boys wrapped up their high school year by winning the provincial banner at the BC High School Track & Field Championships held in Langley from May 31 to June 2, after taking gold in both the 4X100-metre and 4X400-metre races.
Midgley, a Grade 9 student, also broke the school record for running the 100-metre in 11.29 seconds this year, which was only eight one-hundredths of a second away from being the fastest runner the school has ever had. That title currently belongs to recent graduate Alex Savage.
While attending the meet, Sparks, too, learned some new tactics.
“Watching Team Canada warm up, we were asking them (the students) to kind of do what Team Canada did,” he said.
“They didn’t quite get there, because Team Canada was practising their exchanges at full speed in between different relay events, and their warm up was much more thorough than our boys’ warm up. And I thought for them to see that would be a real learning experience, because you really need to be warm, you need to kind of have a light sweat on when you race if you want to perform your best.”
Sparks was also able to study Team Canada’s strategy, and see how they used recent rule changes to their advantage. In the past, the 4×100-metre relay used to have a 10-metre acceleration zone, followed by an exchange zone. The IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) has now combined the zones.
“They were handing off in what used to be the acceleration zone, so they would hand the baton off early, then their fastest runners would get to run more than 100 (metres),” he said.
“So if you get your fastest runners running the farthest distance … that’s just good strategy with the new rules.”
In addition to Walnut Grove, the Langley Mustangs had a young team compete in the Women’s 4X100-metre relay. They placed fifth with a time of 48.73 seconds. Team Canada came second in that race, behind China, with a time of 44.30 seconds.