USC sprinters on a mission

LOS ANGELES – The Trojans of USC have this 1-2 thing down pat when it comes to their top sprinters, Andre De Grasse and Beejay Lee.

At the recent Pac-12 Track & Field Championships at UCLA, De Grasse finished first in the 100 meters (9.97 seconds) and first in the 200 meters (20.05), while Lee was right behind him in both events with times of 10.16 and 20.46. USC won the 4×100 relay in 39.17 with another 1-2 punch as Lee ran the lead leg and handed off to De Grasse, with the wondrously-named Just’N Thymes and Bryan Mercado finishing it off.

Now, De Grasse and Lee hope to do more damage at the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships at Hayward Field next week, although another 1-2 finish there would be highly unrealistic considering they’ll face such top-level sprinters as defending champion Trayvon Bromell of Baylor (10.02), Clayton Vaughn of Texas-Arlington (9.93) and Tevin Hester of Clemson (9.87 with a 2.1 wind reading).

Talking about her dynamic duo of De Grasse and Lee at the upcoming NCAA meet, USC coach Caryl Smith Gilbert said, “It’d be great to see them be All-American in both events. I’d love to see them PR. There’s no guarantee to come across the line first, but if you PR, it means you did the best you could do.’’

De Grasse and Lee see to it that they bring out the best in each other on a daily basis in practice. It’s hard to imagine having better training partners than these two young men, studies in contrast as they are. De Grasse, a Canadian, is quiet and reserved while Lee, from nearby West Covina (Los Angeles County), is bouncy and effusive.

USC's Andre De Grasse enters the 2015 NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships at Hayward Field as the reigning Pac-12 champion in the 100 meters and 200 meters. (Photo courtesy of Kirby Lee)

USC’s Andre De Grasse enters the 2015 NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships at Hayward Field as the reigning Pac-12 champion in the 100 meters and 200 meters. (Photo courtesy of Kirby Lee)

“It’s a lot of fun because they bring a lot of energy to practice and they’re always competitive with each other,’’ Smith Gilbert said. “It’s good for USC. That’s what we like to talk to them about. It doesn’t matter who wins, it’s if they go 1-2 to get the points for USC.’’

That’s just what they did at the Pac-12 meet, the pair contributing a total of 46 points (counting the relay) as the Trojans finished second to Oregon.

“I don’t know what it is about these Canadians,’’ said Lee, who was teammates with another Maple Leaf a year ago in Aaron Brown. “I think it’s great to come out every day and know somebody is going to put it on the line like me. He (De Grasse) helps us improve immensely. Plus, I got a chip on my shoulder because he is Canadian. I can’t let up. I feel I have to represent the U.S. I’m pretty sure he feels the same.’’

He does.

“I like how we’re competitive in practice,’’ De Grasse said. “Beejay is one of the best training partners I’ve had. I haven’t had anyone to push me like that. It makes me want to get better.’’

With wind-legal times of 9.97 and 20.03, De Grasse is coming to TrackTown USA with one purpose in mind.

Well, make that three.

“Of course I want to win and double and go 1-2 (in each race with Lee),’’ De Grasse said. “I think our team can compete for the national title with (Texas) A&M and Oregon. We have a complete team.’’

Added Lee, “The point scale is so huge. We feel these are points we need to get for our team.’’

Lee will be back at Hayward Field later in June for the USA Outdoor Championships, while De Grasse will be in Edmonton in early June trying to make the Canadian team for Beijing. As of June 5, he’s the fastest Canadian in both events. Lee, meanwhile, will be in deep with the likes of Justin Gatlin, Tyson Gay and Mike Rodgers at the USATF meet.

“I want to make a team this year,’’ Lee said. “I want to be part of this new group of sprinters coming up. I want to make my stamp this year and show people I’m elite, too. I’m waiting for these big dogs to retire.’’

He’ll have to wait a little on that one. Gatlin laid down a serious 9.74 time in Doha to send a message to his rivals in the U.S., Jamaica and elsewhere that it will take a prodigious effort to beat him once again this year. Gatlin was undefeated in 2014 in the 100m and 200m.

Lee saw Gatlin run his world-leading time before he raced at the Pac-12 meet, saying, “I’m glad I saw it before the meet. That motivates me.’’

As does the crowd at Hayward Field.

“I love Eugene,’’ Lee said. “I was there last year for nationals (failing to advance to the final). I loved it. It’s definitely TrackTown USA.’’

The two Trojans created a buzz in April at the Mt. SAC Relays when they rode a virtual gale force wind to amazingly fast, but ultimately illegal, times of 9.87 for De Grasse and 9.96 for Lee. The wind reading measured 4.0 meters per second, twice the legal limit.

USC's Beejay Lee (center) wins the 200 meters at the Trojan Invitational. (Photo courtesy of Percy Anderson)

USC’s Beejay Lee (center) wins the 200 meters at the Trojan Invitational. (Photo courtesy of Percy Anderson)

“We were both a little mad,’’ Lee said. “The heat before us and after us was legal – really legal. When we were running, we were in the elite race and we knew we were going to run fast.’’

De Grasse noted that in the race before his, Oregon’s Jenna Prandini busted out her personal best and world-leading 10.92 time, aided by a legal wind of 1.4.

“When we saw that, we thought we were going to get a legal time,’’ De Grasse said. “I was disappointed it was 4.0 but I was happy because I ran 9.8. I want to show people I can run that legally. I know I got a little distracted at the beginning of the race. When I came to my top-end speed, I’m stepping, I’m stepping.’’

Smith Gilbert is one of a number of coaches using, essentially, applied physics to try to improve her sprinters’ techniques and times. As she explains it, “You’re defying gravity and running as fast as you can from race to race. You apply a lot of force to the ground, up to 700 pounds of force on one leg. You want to be off the ground and out of the air quickly. That’s hard to do.

“You want to use the ground to get into the air to get back to the ground. You have to improve your stride length and frequency to get faster. Stride length times stride frequency equals velocity.’’

Sounds simple. As simple as running fast. The Trojans have that part covered.

Previous TTUSA stories by John Crumpacker:

This Kangaroo hops into steeplechase elite

Taking a turn for the better

Dendy keeps Gator tradition alive

Scaling new heights

Big aspirations for Texas A&M’s Little

Finding his sweet spot

Sun Devils eye repeat of NCAA titles

John Crumpacker was a sportswriter for the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle for more than three decades. In that time he won seven national writing awards and covered 10 Olympic Games. He was president of the Track & Field Writers of America on two occasions.