TOKYO — Running out of Lane 9, Andre De Grasse glanced to his left with 10 metres to go in Saturday night's 100-metre heats at the Tokyo Olympics. His final few strides through the finish line looked effortless.
The Canadian sprint star cruised into the semifinals of the men's 100 metres by easily winning his heat. And while that feat was not a surprise, his fast time perhaps was.
The three-time Olympic medallist ran 9.91 seconds despite easing up at the line -- just 0.01 seconds shy of his personal best set at the 2019 world championships in Doha, and the fastest time in the 26-man field.
"Feeling pretty good. I didn't expect to go that fast. I wanted to just relax for the first round," De Grasse said afterward. "But I saw my heat this afternoon, I was like, OK, I'm going to have to run a little bit, got an American in there, had a couple of other nine-second guys in there. So I was like, I might have to run a little bit.
"I think they gave me a little bit of a tough heat, but it's OK. I'm feeling pretty good. And I'm ready for (Sunday) night."
His fast time set up what could be sizzling semifinals and final Sunday night, and poses the question: will the elusive Canadian record of 9.84 shared by Donovan Bailey and Bruny Surin finally fall?
"My coach (Rana Reider) always told me I'm better than my personal best, I just haven't had a chance to really do it," De Grasse said. "Because I go back and forth so much between the (100 and 200). He knows that I'm ready. He says that 'You're ready to go fast. Just got to go out there and if you get that first part of the race, you know you can win.'"
If De Grasse has had a weak spot, it has been his start, which can be costly over 100 metres. But he was quick out of the blocks on Saturday, and turned on the jets over the final 50 metres to pull away from the field.
Italy's Lamont Jacobs had the second fastest time on the night of 9.94, while American Fred Kerley was third in 9.97.
Wearing gold wraparound shades, De Grasse looked at ease, playfully saluting the television camera, flashing a wide grin and tapping a hand to his heart during the lane introductions. He obviously wasn't flustered by his heat's two false starts, the second of which disqualified Nigeria's Divine Oduduru.
"I think people are just a little bit nervous in the first round," De Grasse said of the false starts. "I just tried to get the jitters out the way, of course I was a little bit nervous coming in. . . But as soon as I got out there on the track, all the nerves kind of just went away. And I was like: just stay focused. And I'm feeling good, and I'm ready to go."
His fast time was also unexpected since he hasn't run many 100s this season, focusing instead on the 200 because of a tougher Olympic schedule that has them running two 200s in the same day.
When COVID-19 pandemic postponed the Olympics by a year, De Grasse was initially frustrated. He'd come off an excellent world championships eight months earlier that saw him capture three medals. He was finally healthy after hamstring injuries sidelined him for the better part of two seasons.
It all just made Saturday night's race feel that much sweeter.
"I'm grateful and blessed to be here," he said. "We waited a whole extra year for this. So, I'm just happy I get the opportunity to represent my country and just go out there and try to make it happen."
Gavin Smellie of Brampton, Ont., finished eighth in his heat and did not advance.
De Grasse won bronze in the 100 at both the 2019 world championships, and the 2016 Rio Olympics, plus silver in the 200 at both those two events.
These Games have a much different feel than previous global events he's competed in. There's no Usain Bolt. The Jamaican superstar, who won the 100 and 200 in the previous three Olympics, retired in 2017, leaving no clear-cut favourite in the sprints.
The 100 metres is also a prime example of how bizarre these Olympics are amid the global COVID-19 pandemic. Because of the state of emergency in Tokyo, no fans are permitted in the 50,000-seat stadium, which, because of its multi-coloured seats, looks better on TV than in person. Media, officials, coaches and athletes were the only people in the stadium.
The 100 is also normally a spectacular auditory experience -- the hush when the runners crouch in the blocks, followed by the eruption of cheers at the sound of the gun. It's deafening. But Saturday, the sound of the sprinters' shoes could be heard striking the track with each step.
"To be honest, I feel like I heard my name a couple of times, and I heard 'Canada,'" he said. "I know there's not a lot of fans out there, but I heard my name called so it may pump me up still."
Meanwhile, Canada's Crystal Emmanuel and Khamica Bingham were eliminated from the women's 100 semifinals earlier in the night.
Emmanuel ran 11.21 to finish sixth in her heat, while Bingham was fifth in hers in 11.22.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 31, 2021.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press