Aaron Brown first noticed a change in Jerome Blake after his Star Athletics teammate became the fifth-fastest man all-time over 200 metres on a straight track.
Blake achieved the feat last May 23, surprising world-renowned runners from the United States, South Africa and Great Britain to win in 19.89 seconds at the Adidas Boost Boston Games, the Canadian’s first sub-20 in the distance.
“After that race, he was a very confident guy, almost too much,” Brown recalled ahead of this Saturday’s Diamond League meet in Birmingham, England, where he will team with Blake in the 4×100 relay. The event begins at 9 a.m. ET on CBCSports.ca, the CBC Sports app and CBC Gem.
“He kept saying, ‘I’m going to run 19 [seconds] at this race and this race.’ He didn’t let it come naturally and started to put expectations on himself.”
Blake would post world-class times in practice, but they didn’t translate to competitions on a 400-metre oval track. He also wasn’t focused for early season races and not present, mentally, at the start line. The added pressure eventually cost him a spot as a 100 or 200 runner on the 2020 Canadian Olympic team.
Watching a 100 final in Tokyo not featuring Blake infuriated his coach Dennis Mitchell, the 1992 Olympic bronze medallist from the U.S. He tore a stripe off his athlete as they watched the race, five days before Blake and Brown helped Canada to relay bronze.
“I didn’t know what I was doing. It was a new [training system] and I was struggling with trusting something new,” said Blake, who left coach Tara Self in Coquitlam, B.C., after the 2020 season to train with Brown and Mitchell in Florida. “I didn’t trust what he [Mitchell] was telling me.
“But it was more I didn’t believe in myself. He gave me a stern cussing and sometimes it helps push you.”
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Growing up in Jamaica, Blake joked that he would run for Canada one day. After making the move to Kelowna, B.C., he was spotted by a coach who encouraged him to take sprinting seriously.
Blake, who was born in Buff Bay, Jamaica, clocked 10.06 and 20.20 in the 100 and 200, respectively, late in the 2021 campaign and was told by Mitchell he “left a lot on the table.”
The six-foot-three, 198-pound sprinter told CBC Sports he spent the off-season improving his hip and core strength and is now stronger and more comfortable when he’s upright and running. Blake also spent time working on his mental strength with a sports psychologist and continues to refine technical elements to become faster out of the starting blocks and over the first 10 to 20 metres.
‘I trust the work I’ve put into training’
“I’ve stopped putting pressure on myself,” said Blake, who was a hurdler, high jumper and long jumper before relocating with his family to the Okanagan region in B.C. in his final year of high school.
“I trust the work I’ve put into training and understand for each race I’m going to give what I have, do what I need to do, and the results will be the results.”
“He covers a lot of ground with his stride, has a good work ethic and is living up to the potential he has shown,” added Brown, the three-time defending Canadian champion in the 200 who was Blake’s mentor in 2017’s RBC Training Ground. “This year, he believes he belongs and can compete with the people he lines up against.
“I think he can go a lot faster and off the track I’ve seen him do a lot of things to make him a world-class athlete. He’s very strict with his diet and up on the supplements he’s taking.”
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Blake has delivered early this season.
He opened his outdoor 200 season running a 20.04 personal-best on April 16 at the USATF Golden Games. Two weeks later, the 26-year-old went 10-flat in the 100 for another PB at a local meet after taking a few days off to visit his mother in Kelowna, B.C.
Blake will also run the 100 on Saturday at 9:29 a.m. ET, facing reigning Olympic bronze medallist Andre De Grasse of Markham, Ont., and his cousin Yohan Blake, who won silver at the 2012 London Games. Jerome also beat 32-year-old Yohan six weeks ago, along with American standouts Noah Lyles and Erriyon Knighton, at the Bermuda Games.
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Retired Canadian sprinter Glenroy Gilbert remembers a young Blake catching his eye in 2017 “running on sheer talent with no strength or development” at the Canada Summer Games in Winnipeg.
“I’ve always thought Jerome could be a good sprinter,” said Gilbert, now Athletics Canada head coach. “[He] finally did what he needed to do, training in an environment with world-class athletes that would be conducive to him running fast. It’s hard to say where the ceiling is for him.”
Olympic relay medal upgrade for Canada
Blake’s marked improvement can only benefit Canada’s relay squad in a world championship year. Brendon Rodney, Blake, Brown and De Grasse will reunite in Birmingham and race the 100 at 11:05 a.m. ET for the first time since the Olympics after being rained out at the Florida Relays in April.
They received great news when the International Olympic Committee rubber-stamped their Olympic upgrade to silver during Thursday’s meeting of the executive board. Great Britain, which finished 1-100th of a second behind Italy for a gold medal, was disqualified following CJ Ujah’s doping violation.
Brown, who will run the first leg on Saturday, expects Canada to run under 38 seconds if the team displays clean handoffs, its downfall nine months ago in Tokyo, where Italy crossed the finish line first in 37.70 ahead of Great Britain (37.51).
WATCH | Canadian men’s relay team races to Olympic podium in Tokyo:
Andre De Grasse led Canada to a third place finish in the Tokyo Olympics 4x100m relay, before Great Britain was stripped of their silver medal due to a positive test by British sprinter Chijindu Ujah.
“It was the difference between bronze and gold,” Brown said over the phone from Birmingham. “We have the leg speed to compete with anybody in the world. It’s a matter of finding our spacing [with the handoff] and being more consistent with it. The relay is like a dance and every step is crucial. If you’re one step out of place, it throws off the entire routine and it’s hard to recover.
“I’d love for us to run a clean race where we’re not conservative with our steps. If we play conservative now, we’re going to play conservative [at worlds in July] and be scared to take a chance.”
Middle-distance runners Marco Arop (9:37 a.m. ET) and Lindsey Butterworth (10:51 a.m.) as well as high jumper Django Lovett (8:24 a.m.) are the other Canadians competing in Birmingham.
Arop, 23, was third in his outdoor season opener in the 800 metres, clocking 1:49.51 a week ago in a slow men’s race at the first Diamond League meet of 2022 in Doha. The 29-year-old Butterworth returns to Diamond League action in the women’s 800 for the first time since her 2018 debut at the Prefontaine Classic. She ran 1:59.59 – 9-100ths off the women’s world standard – on May 6 in California.
Lovett, who won his first Canadian title last summer, placed third in Doha with a 2.27-metre clearance after finishing eighth (2.30) at the Tokyo Olympics.
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