Originally Posted: July 24, 2022
By: Kerry Gillespie
What few people could have known watching Saturday night’s stirring win at the world championships was that Aaron Brown set the table, and not just by running a strong leadoff leg.
EUGENE, Ore.—Everyone who watched the men’s 4×100-metre relay final at the world track and field championships saw Andre De Grasse hold off the Americans and bring the Canadian team across the line for gold.
But what few people could have known was that Aaron Brown set the table for that win, and not just because he ran a strong leadoff leg.
Brown is the one who really pushed Athletics Canada head coach Glenroy Gilbert — a member of the relay team the last time Canadians won global gold in 1997 (also 1995 and 1996) — to let them “go for broke” on their baton exchanges.
“If we want to win, we have to push it,” Brown said Friday night, after advancing to Saturday’s final. “Enough with conservative. We’ve got our bronzes, we have a silver, but we need that gold. If we’re going to get that, we’ve got to go for broke. Just trust us.”
On the track, what that looks like is each man running farther into the exchange zone to maximize speed, and handing off the baton to the next runner within a step or two of going out of the zone and being disqualified.
It’s a high-reward/high-risk strategy in an event that Donovan Bailey, who led those winning teams of the ’90s, has described as “two cars at the Indy 500 and one guy is trying to high-five the other guy while both are driving by.”
But after years of working together, they all felt ready. Brown, De Grasse and Brendon Rodney have been running together since 2015, and Jerome Blake joined them in 2019. Brown was the most vocal and started pushing hard at a training camp, weeks before Saturday night’s final at Hayward Field.
“We usually use about 27, 28 (strides) on the first exchange, and Aaron came out one day and said, ‘OK, I’m going to use 30.’ And my eyes opened wide as saucers,” Gilbert recalled. “I was like, what are you talking about?”
Brown didn’t back down. He said he was sure he’d reach Blake, who would be pulling away and nearing the end of the allowable exchange zone with each extra step.
After the heats, where the team qualified for the final behind the Americans, Gilbert and the team reviewed race tape and parsed out the zone times and individual splits. All of this happened over a video conference on Zoom, because Gilbert was in isolation after testing positive for COVID-19 a few days early.
The other big change was having De Grasse take the baton on the last hand-off from Rodney farther into the zone.
“And we saw what happened,” Gilbert said Sunday, after the win had fully sunk in. “If Andre has the baton alongside anybody in the world, there’s no way they’re going to overtake him.”
Canada won in a world-leading time of 37.48 seconds, the Americans took silver in 37.55 and Britain the bronze in 37.83.
Even after the win, Gilbert readily admitted he was “nervous” about the plan. But this group have long been urging trust — the coach’s trust in them, and trust in each other that the baton will be where it’s supposed to be. They showed what they can do with it.
“We talked about this moment so many times. We came up a little bit short at the Olympics, but breaking the national record here (Saturday) just proved, the same quartet, we can do good things together,” said De Grasse, who uncharacteristically left these championships with just the relay medal after struggling with the after-effects of a recent bout of COVID.
Gold isn’t just one colour better than silver from last year’s Tokyo Olympics. On the track, that one had been bronze — like at the 2016 Rio Olympics and 2015 worlds. It was upgraded to silver when the British team was stripped of its medal because of the doping violation.
This time, they beat the best in the world on their own track.
Individually, the Americans swept the medals in the men’s 100 and 200 metres and, after setting a then world-leading time of 37.87 seconds in the qualifying round (and celebrating boisterously), clearly thought relay gold would be theirs, too.
As De Grasse said: “It felt great to spoil the party for them.”
That the whole is much more than the sum of its parts — as long as the baton doesn’t fall — is something Canadian sprinters have long said makes the relay special.
“It’s just great to show our talent to the world … Canada is probably one of the greatest countries (for sprinters) historically,” Rodney said the night before their big win. “So we’ve just got to keep that historical run going.”
And they did, celebrating with gold medals around their necks and Canadian flags on their shoulders.
Source: Toronto Star