(Reuters) - A young Canadian sprinter who once thought basketball was his game, the world’s best indoor pole vaulter and a Cuban jumper with world record ambitions headline a Pan American Games athletics competition.
Andre De Grasse, little known in the sprint world of Usain Bolt and Justin Gatlin until June, is making plans to break a two-decade-old Canadian speed drought in the July 10-26 hemispheric games in a big way.
De Grasse, at age 20, hopes to become Canada’s first men’s 100 meters winner since Glenroy Gilbert in 1995.
The Games’ 200m title as well as national records in both sprints also appear within reach.
“That’s on my mind,” De Grasse said. He holds the Canadian 200m record of 20.03 seconds but the 100m mark of 9.84 seconds is an old one, dating back to the 1990s when Donovan Bailey and Bruny Surin were Canada’s best.
De Grasse has been faster than both, cruising glittering 9.75 and 19.58 seconds at the U.S. collegiate championships, but the marks were wind-assisted.
With Bolt on the mend from a leg injury and Gatlin and a host of American and Caribbean sprinters chasing fame in Europe, De Grasse should have a shot at both golds, if not the records. He showed his shape by sprinting a lifetime best 9.95 seconds in the 100m at last week’s national championships.
American pole vaulter Jenn Suhr already has gold and a world record.
The New Yorker soared to the London Olympic title in 2012 and took away Russian pole vault queen Yelena Isinbayeva’s all-time indoor best the next year.
Now Suhr wants her first outdoor world title after finishing second to Isinbayeva in 2013. The Pan Ams will be her tune-up and she should have plenty of competition with Cuban Yarisley Silva, the Olympic silver medallist and world bronze medal winner, and Brazilian former world champion Fabiana Murer in the field.
Pedro Pablo Pichardo’s event, the triple jump, may not be as glamorous as the sprints, but the 22-year-old Cuban has been raising lots of eyebrows in a good way.
The world silver medallist bounded the third and fourth best jumps of all time in May and is seen by many as a serious threat to Briton Jonathan Edwards’ 1995 world record.
Pichardo is one of five athletes in the Games whom Track & Field News has tabbed as gold medal favorites for August’s world championships in Beijing.
One is Canada’s Brianne Theisen-Eaton. The world heptathlon silver medallist will conserve energy for Beijing by only long jumping at the Pan Ams. But she, too, will be challenged as team mate Christabel Nettey ranks among the year’s best.
Other Canadians for the home crowd to cheer on are pole vaulter Shawn Barber and world high jump silver medallist Derek Drouin.
Colombian Caterine Ibarguen is another jumper to watch. She claimed triple jump gold at the 2013 worlds after reaping silver at the London Olympics
On the men’s side, American Jeff Henderson has been proclaimed as the long jumper to beat in Beijing and has the season’s best mark, 8.50m.
The U.S. will also be strong in the hurdles with year’s fastest 400m hurdler Shamier Little and 110m high hurdles world champion David Oliver.
Oliver’s reason for competing is a special one.
“I’m at the stage of my career where I am all about getting opportunities,” said the 33-year-old, who will be making his first Pan Am Games appearance.
“I’ll miss a Diamond League meet or two, but I have been to all those before,” said the 2008 Olympic bronze medallist.
Then there are the Wingers. Wife and husband both represent the U.S. Kara throws the javelin and Russ the discus.
Reporting by Gene Cherry in Raleigh, North Carolina; Editing by Frank Pingue