TOKYO — Running blind out of Lane 9, Andre De Grasse saw nothing but wide-open red rubber track stretch out ahead of him on Wednesday night.
The Canadian sprint star rounded the bend, then pulled away down the homestretch, then with 10 metres to go, he glanced to his left to make sure he was safely in the clear. Mission accomplished.
Despite coasting over the final 10 metres, the 26-year-old from Markham, Ont., smashed his own Canadian record to win his 200-metre semifinal on Tuesday at the Tokyo Olympics.
"My coach (Rana Reider) tells me ‘Just run your race, don't worry about what anybody else is doing,’ so it's easier when nobody's there, and you're just looking straight ahead," De Grasse said.
Reider instructed De Grasse to run hard for 150 metres, but make sure to win, a victory ensuring a good lane in Wednesday night's final. He crossed in 19.73, the fastest time on the night, and faster than his previous Canadian record of 19.80 set at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
"I knew I had it in me," De Grasse said of the record. "My (personal best) was from 2016, and I knew I was better than that, especially coming off of the personal best (in the 100) a couple nights ago.
"I didn't expect to go that fast. I wanted to save it for the final . . . but my coach told me ‘Make sure you get first because you want to have a good lane for (Wednesday) night.'"
Fellow Canadian Aaron Brown ran 19.99 to win his semifinal, a much tighter race that required a photo finish to determine the placing, setting up what promises to be a thrilling final.
"It's amazing to have two Canadians (in the final), it's something you haven't seen since Bruny (Surin) and Donovan (Bailey) in the 100, we just want to make history and make Canada proud," said Brown, a 29-year-old from Toronto.
De Grasse won bronze in the 100 metres on Sunday, his fourth Olympic medal. But he's the reigning Olympic and world championship silver medallist in the 200.
He has been focusing on that distance for the past few months, partly because of the gruelling Tokyo schedule that saw the sprinters run twice on Tuesday, with nine hours separating the morning heats and the evening's semis.
"We really had to focus in on (the back-to-back races) this year," De Grasse said. "I didn't probably get to work as much on my speed in the 100, because I was so focused on the 200 and trying to make sure that I was fit enough for the rounds.
"But I'm feeling pretty good, this is my stronger event."
Added Brown: "I don’t think that’s something that anyone’s ever done before, two 200s in a day. It was definitely a learning experience."
There hasn't been two Canadians in a 200 final since Percy Williams and John Fitzpatrick in 1928. Williams captured gold and his teammate took fifth.
It's fitting that De Grasse and Brown will finally race together for the Olympic podium. They've been friends and national teammates for years and are sharing a suite in the athletes village.
"(De Grasse) is right beside me," Brown said. "So I’m going to talk to him, be like, ‘What was that? Smashing the national record on the semi? What are you doing?’
"He looked great and I’m looking forward to a really great battle."
This will be Brown's first final in his third Olympic appearance.
"I've been telling Aaron for the longest time, 'You're good enough to make a final. You're good. You've just got to be mentally there,' and he showed up today," De Grasse said. "Two Canadians in the 200-metre final, I think that might be the first time ever in history. So, it's pretty, it's pretty cool."
The two said they planned for meals and massages back at the village on Tuesday evening. They'll spend Wednesday relaxing, watching Netflix and keeping their mind off the race.
Camryn Rogers of Richmond, B.C., meanwhile, impressed in her Olympic debut, finishing fifth in the women's hammer throw at 74.35 metres. A few weeks ago, the 22-year-old junior at Cal Berkeley shattered the scholastic record, throwing 75.52 metres to win the NCAA championships.
Poland's Anita Wlodarczyk won gold with a throw of 78.48.
Rogers, who was the youngest thrower in the field, said she took up the sport after encouragement from her mom's clients.
"My mom is a hairdresser and she has a lot of clients and friends who were a part of the track club at home. And they had told me for a really long time, 'You should come out, you should try it, meet the coaches, meet the people,'" Rogers said. "And on January 5, 2012, 15 minutes before the first practice of the year started, I made the last-minute decision and just thought, you know what? Maybe I will go out. Maybe I will see what track and field is all about and what I can find in there for me.
"From then on, I just fell in love with hammer more and more."
Four days after finishing sixth in the men's 10,000 metres, Canada's Mohammed Ahmed was second in his heat of the men's 5,000, the distance in which he raced to bronze at the 2019 world championships. The 30-year-old from St. Catharines, Ont., hung near the back of the pack for the first half before taking the lead to push the pace. He finished in 13:38.96.
Justyn Knight of Toronto cruised into Friday's final by finishing third in the other 5,000 heat in 13:30.22.
Kyra Constantine of Toronto clinched a spot in the women's 400 semifinals. Constantine was fifth in her heat, but her time of 51.69 was fast enough to advance.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 3, 2021.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press