TORONTO — Canada's men's sprint story at last month's world track and field championships began with the disastrous news that Andre De Grasse was out with an injury. It ended with the 4x100-metre relay team crossing a distant sixth.
Now, heading into an off-year in the sport, with no Olympics or world championships, Canada's fastest men are taking a break and slowing down.
De Grasse and his relay teammates will spend part of the next few weeks hosting a series of six-minute walks across Canada to raise awareness for idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), a rare and fatal lung condition. Six minutes, explained Akeem Haynes, because "respirologists use the six-minute mark as a judgement to see if the disease is progressing, and because six minutes seems like a marathon for (sufferers)."
De Grasse, Haynes, Aaron Brown and Brendon Rodney met with the media in Toronto on Wednesday to talk about their work with IPF, part of a welcome competitive break after a largely disappointing season.
The 23-year-old De Grasse had set his season sights on beating Usain Bolt in the Jamaican superstar's career finale, only to suffer a hamstring strain days before the worlds in London.
De Grasse has recently been cleared to resume full training, as evident by a recent Instagram post — the sprinter posted video of him playing soccer with a few friends and fellow Puma athletes on a trip last week to Germany.
"Everything is going well," said the three-time Olympic medallist. "I had an MRI and things were perfect, so I definitely was trying to take advantage of doing other things, and not thinking about track and having fun doing something else."
De Grasse also took in Sunday's Borussia Dortmund game at Westfalenstadion versus Cologne, and met German midfielder Marco Reus.
With no Olympics or world championships, the Commonwealth Games in April highlight an otherwise light season in the sport. Toronto will also host the NACAC championships this summer, which features athletes from North America, Central America and Caribbean Athletics.
"We're just trying to have fun," Rodney said. "Next year's an off-year so any time we can come home and support, or run in Canada, I think we're all going to try to do that, put on a show. We'll get serious the year after that."
The foursome welcome the down time to focus on off-track endeavours, such as the IPF campaign.
"When you can use sport to raise awareness of real-life problems, that's when it becomes more than just about every day sport and competition," Brown said. "You want to be able to make a difference in society and help people in the community, and give back. So when you're able to reach that level where you have the power to do that through sport, it makes you feel good, and it makes you feel like you're a part of the community. It's something bigger than competition."
De Grasse's withdrawal in London was only the beginning of a bad-luck meet for Canada that saw Olympic high jump champion Derek Drouin withdraw with an injury, and numerous athletes, including reigning world decathlon silver medallist Damian Warner, fall ill to a stomach virus. De Grasse had a legitimate shot at gold in the 100 and 200. The relay team — world and Olympic bronze medallists — was poised for a podium performance before De Grasse went down. And Brown, who had medal potential in the 200, was disqualified in the heats for a lane violation.
"I didn't want to watch (the 200 final)," Brown said. "But you can't dwell too much on it, there's going to be more opportunities."
Despite their poor luck, Brown said the world results — Turkey's Ramil Guliyev was the surprise winner in the 200 — bode well for Canada's crop of young and talented sprinters.
"The great thing is, this is the current crop of sprinters moving forward in the future," said the 25-year-old from Toronto. "Obviously, a couple major people weren't in the 200 (including Bolt and De Grasse), but for the most part this is who we're going to be dealing with. There are years to come where we can show what we can do."
The Fight IPF Six-Minute Marathons are Oct. 14 in Calgary, Oct. 21 in Vancouver, and Oct. 29 in Winnipeg. IPF is affecting as many as 30,000 Canadians, and is responsible for an estimated 5,000 deaths annually. The disease causes irreversible scarring of the lungs that deprives the body of oxygen.