EJ Floreal avoided track for much of his life.
His dad Edrick Floreal is the greatest long and triple jumper Canada has ever produced and is now an accomplished NCAA coach. His mom LaVonna Martin-Floreal is an Olympic hurdles silver medallist for the U.S.
So EJ evaded the hefty expectations and instead played basketball at the University of Kentucky, alongside Canadian star Jamal Murray, who's still a close friend.
"I think when you're the child of the coach, and the child of successful athletes, that can weigh on you, that the expectation is you have to be great and do great things," said Edrick Floreal, the head coach of the University of Texas women's team.
"I always thought EJ could be a freak of nature in track (at six foot four), and he just kept finding ways not to let that materialize. And I think he just decided to make a commitment and I told him, 'If it works, it works, and if it don't, it don't. Don't go through the rest of your life questioning.'"
There's no questioning now. EJ is making his national team debut at Canada's relays camp this week at Baton Rouge, La. A rookie on the team despite being 26, he is more than holding his own. His 200 time -- 20.29 seconds -- is the fastest by a Canadian this season, and eighth fastest in the world. It's also 0.05 shy of the Tokyo Olympic standard.
After a few years battling injuries and disaffection, he has sprinted to personal bests virtually every time his feet have left the starting blocks this season.
His feelings crossing the finish line?
"It's about time. Finally," EJ said in a phone interview this week. "I finally stopped lying to myself, I finally put in the work, I finally stopped everything that was detrimental to success. And, I finally took advantage of an opportunity that I was given. A combination of all those feelings has been written on my face. That I can do this."
EJ was a talented athlete in virtually every sport he played, including football, baseball and basketball.
He made Kentucky's basketball team as a walk-on freshman. He lists his greatest basketball memory as dunking on Wildcats teammate (now a New York Knicks forward) Julius Randle in a blue vs. white game. Powerhouse Kentucky played in March Madness all three of his seasons, and in the Final Four in two -- 2014 and '15.
But three seasons in, EJ was barely seeing the floor. Basketball wasn't fun anymore.
"I had to make the best decision for me, and a decision that made me happy," he said. "The hardest thing was walking away and feeling like I had given up. Like I quit. But, you have to make decisions that are best for your own mental health, your own happiness and I just wasn't having fun playing basketball anymore.
"The grind wasn't fun. Obviously not playing isn't very fun."
His dad was coaching track at Kentucky at the time.
"He just got burnt out with basketball," Edrick said. "He had a really good coach (John Calipari). Obviously had a really good team. But he just got to the point where one day he came into my office and said 'I want to quit.' He said 'I want to do track and I want you to coach me.'"
"I thought 'Wow, that doesn't sound like a good idea,'" Edrick said with a laugh. "I'd rather cheer and be a dad than be a coach, because when you're a coach you're constantly crossing that (coach/parent) relationship line, back and forth."
EJ ran track in his senior year at Kentucky. But it wasn't until this season that everything finally came together.
"There was a lot of injuries and a lot of self-sabotage, not really working as hard as I do now, I definitely wasn't accountable," he said. "I liked to blame other people, say that it was someone else's fault. But you've just got to do everything that's in your control to reach a goal, and that's what I do now.
"To finally see that glimpse of what I can be, it's pretty sensational, especially seeing people who've been in my corner for the last five, six, or seven years, waiting for a moment like this."
His parents have always been in his corner, although Edrick had considered not coaching his son.
"It's been several years that I told my wife 'I'm going to give it one more year.' I said that five or six years now, 'one more year,' 'one more year,'" he said with a laugh. "This year was going to be my last year."
Edrick texted a quote by Rumi, the 13th century poet and scholar, to one of his Texas athletes this week that read: "Set your life on fire. Seek those who fan your flames."
It's applicable to parenting.
"I thought, 'You know what? I can't force EJ to want it,'" Edrick said. "But I fanned the flame. And it was his decision, he decided to give it a shot and committed, and I think there's still a lot more there, it's just a matter of continuing to fan the flame."
Murray is another person in EJ's corner. The two talk every couple of weeks. Murray had sent EJ a song to listen to just hours before he suffered the torn ACL that ended his season with the Denver Nuggets.
"(Murray) has always believed that I could do it," EJ said. "He tells me all the time, 'You're different bro, you're just different. All you need is a chance, you've just got to go take advantage of it.'"
EJ and his sister Mimi, who also shunned track to play soccer, grew up in the U.S., but EJ said it wasn't a tough choice to run for Canada. His dad was born in Haiti but grew up in Montreal.
"It's a great opportunity to represent a country that adopted part of my family," said EJ, who last visited family in Quebec in 2019 when his dad was inducted into the Athletics Canada Hall of Fame.
He hopes to race for Canada on Saturday at the LSU Alumni Gold. Canada has entries in the 4x100 and 4x400 relays, but with a couple of dozen athletes in camp, the teams haven't yet been named. Floreal is currently an alternate for the World Athletics Relays, May 1-2 in Poland.
The Tokyo Olympics are within reach. Among Canadians, only Andre De Grasse, whose Canadian record is 19.80, and Aaron Brown, with a personal best of 19.95, have run faster.
"You just never know when that moment comes, it's just surviving a hodgepodge of issues and beatdowns and defeat to get to that point," Edrick said. "Some people have success right away. EJ has definitely taken the road less travelled. He's a perfect example of: just commit to doing the best you can.
"And don't ever give up on your kids' dreams, keep fanning the flame."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 22, 2021.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press