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Aaron Brown is finally running ‘easy’ and picturing himself on the podium in Tokyo

Remember Vinicius, the combination of various Brazilian animals? Or how about Falah, the athletic falcon? There’s Hero the Hedgehog, too, a classic from the 2017 world championships. Aaron Brown has those mascot dolls inside the display room of his Winter Garden, Fla., home along with medals, awards and shoes from every track meet he’s participated in.

What once started as a sweet gift to his wife, Preeya Brown, has now become a souvenir collection alongside the medals Brown has won throughout his career. 

“She wasn’t sure what she was supposed to do with them,” Brown said. “Now it’s just a little weird thing where I buy each one.”

It’s what can’t be bought at these major events, though, that Brown wants most. To stand alone on an Olympic podium for Canada — he won bronze as part of the 4×100 relay team at the Rio Olympics in 2016 — has been the focus for the 28-year-old. The 200 metres is his race, but Brown has yet to make it his event on the big stage. He’s Canada’s back-to-back national champion and nearly eight months before the main event in Tokyo, Brown can see himself as one of three people with a medal to show for their efforts.

Due to the worldwide coronavirus restrictions in 2020, Brown has run around soccer pitches, open fields with potholes and ant hills more tailor made for triple jump practice than the 100- or 200-metre sprint, and even thrown in some boxing lessons to help fulfill his dream. His pursuit is relentless because he visualizes it every day, he genuinely believes he can do it.

“I have an opportunity ahead of me and I don’t want that to just be something that was potential and I let it go to waste,” Brown said. 

For far too long, though, he only expected the worst. A victim of his own expectations, sometimes a self-fulfilling prophecy, this is how Brown flipped the script on his own narrative with the help of one of the greatest sprinters of the past two decades.

WATCH | This is your road: Aaron Brown Part I

Aaron Brown, one of the best sprinters that Canada has ever seen, takes CBC Sports’ Anson Henry on his journey this year as he prepares for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. 7:26

On Aug. 13, 2016, Brown stood in the call room for the 100 metres underneath the Olympic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro and his mind just wouldn’t stop talking to him. He had gone almost two months without his coach, Dennis Mitchell, bronze medallist in the 100m final of the 1992 Olympics, who had turned his attention to coaching  the U.S. Olympic relay team. Brown was convinced that his subsequent training with an assistant coach just wasn’t the same. He started thinking of all the people watching and what they might think, all the runners he’d seen on the TV in that same room as he waited for his heat, the second to last, and then, he’s frozen.

WATCH | This is your road: Aaron Brown Part II

In part II we see how love has impacted the life of Aaron Brown on his road to The Olympics, and we meet his fiancé – Preeya – and they sit and chat with CBC Sports’ Anson Henry about their relationship. 8:04

On the short warmup runway, Brown tried getting into motion and couldn’t feel his legs. He had to pull up immediately because it was like he was suffocating. With nowhere to hide as his heat came up, Brown got his blocks set up to take his mark and got into a warmup stride.

“Usually, that’s how you test it out to see how you feel,” Brown said. “That either gives you confidence like, ‘Oh, I’m ready!’ or ‘Oh, I don’t know about this one.’ I came back … and it was the second one.”

Brown says he can’t remember what happened when that gun went off, that he blanked out after about 10 metres and was clueless as to whether he finished first or dead-last. Like passengers at an airport looking at the flight information display system for the latest updates, Brown watched the scoreboard and hoped. As name after name came up that wasn’t his, Brown went from hoping he was among the best to wishing he had at least done enough to qualify for the next round. He hadn’t. After a couple of silvers in Olympic trials and running the 100 in under 10 seconds for the first time, Brown was feeling pretty good going into the race. Now, his journey was over. Thoroughly embarrassed, he was so down and feeling like he had let down everyone who supported him that he just wanted to escape the lowest moment of his life.

Brown, left, leaves the blocks beside Usain Bolt in the 100-metre semifinals at the 2013 world championships in Moscow. Brown admits he has struggled to envision himself as a champion like Bolt, who won three Olympic titles in the 100m. (Getty Images)

Words of consolation

When he went to his Olympic village flat where other Canadian track teammates stayed, Akeem Haynes — who had also run the 100m heat that day and would be a relay partner — was there. After a few words of consolation and a reminder that he still had two events to look forward to, Brown knew he needed to reset so he could still give his best for Canada. Quickly, he made a getaway plan with Preeya and the two booked an Airbnb room away from the Olympic village to decompress before the next day’s action.

“It was almost like his spark had gone out,” said Preeya, who is expecting the couple’s first child this month. “I don’t even know how to describe it, it was very difficult to see. He was very emotional, very, very upset and it just seemed like he needed to get track off his mind in that moment in time because it was such a disappointment for him.”

By the time he returned the next morning, those close to him understood what was happening and moved the conversation on to doing his best in the 200 and the 4×100 relay. He did well enough to make the semis of the former, but fear of what might doom him was the victor once again.

In the latter, Brown was able to help Canada win bronze alongside Haynes, Brendon Rodney and Andre De Grasse after the U.S. was disqualified for an improper passing of the baton. Haynes, who was Canada’s lead runner and passed the baton to Brown, knew his teammate would be there when it counted.

“I knew he was gonna come back,” Haynes said. “No matter what Aaron is going through, he’s going to show up for his team. He may not be 100 per cent in the right state of mind but he’ll get where he needs to, to be there. Once you’re present, those around you can help elevate you to where you need to be and I think that’s why we had so much success in the relay.”

Brown, second from left, with Akeem Haynes, Brendon Rodney and Andre De Grasse after winning bronze in the 4×100 at the Rio Olympics in 2016. (AFP via Getty Images)

Pressure of expectations

The first time Brown dealt with the pressure of expectations was at the 2010 world junior championships in Moncton, NB., as a spry 18-year-old. He had only started running track full-time the year before and was just coming to grips with wearing spikes, tights, and running off blocks, let alone understanding the nuances of running his best race. Discovered at a world youth event where he broke the Canadian youth record, Brown was now having to back up what he did the year before with the pressure of people thinking he could be special.

“I’m thinking that was my first year, this second year I’m about to take another big leap,” Brown said. “I didn’t understand I was racing people older than me, but I was in under-19 competition and I was 18. There were guys freshman year in college racing so that’s a whole different type of experience and strength level.

“I went into that competition, ended up getting fifth in the 100 in Moncton,” Brown said. “In front of the Canadian crowd I felt like I kinda disappointed even though I really probably didn’t because I did something when I wasn’t ranked that high. But my own naïve expectations, I felt like I let people down.”

Brown competes at the 2009 world youth championships in Italy. HIs performance there created expectations he first felt he couldn’t live up to. (Getty Images)

‘Forgets who the heck he is’

Several NCAA programs were enticed by his potential and tried to recruit Brown before he eventually committed to the University of South Carolina with a track scholarship. Disaster soon struck as injury meddled with his freshman goals on the track and that remained a pattern until he was a senior. The expectation was to make up for lost time and make a run at a NCAA national championship, but despite an impressive showing to finish second in the 200, falling short of the team goal left him disappointed.

“He had that [negativity] in college, too,” said Preeya, who met Brown in high school and has known him since 2008. “Just really, really hard on himself, just really worried about disappointing himself and disappointing others so this was not something new at the time. He puts on a brave face and hides it but it’s always been there beneath the surface.”

Just really, really hard on himself, just really worried about disappointing himself and disappointing others …– Preeya Brown, Aaron Brown’s wife

The further Brown went, the further into the weeds he went. At the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014, he failed to qualify for either the final of the 100 or 200. That story repeated itself in 2015 at the world championships in Beijing and laid the groundwork for what Brown felt that fateful night in Rio.

“I think from my experience and our relationship, sometimes I think Aaron gets to the big championship and I think he forgets who the heck he is,” Haynes said. “He does well, he goes to the level he needs to be to get there, but as an athlete when you know you’re one of the best you always put so much pressure on yourself. I think sometimes that’s where Aaron falls a little bit short, he puts a lot of pressure on himself to do well. Aaron is a guy who doesn’t need much to get going and if he goes to these championships and just remembers who he is, I think he’ll be right where he sees himself.”

All of these moments came to the surface in the wake of the Rio Olympics. Brown couldn’t accept the way his career was trending. A perennial underachiever on the big stage? No way. Not with the tremendous sense of responsibility he feels to validate the sacrifice his immigrant parents made in coming to Canada — his father, Ian, from Jamaica and his mother, Sofia, from England — and raising their three children. They provided everything they could and it wasn’t until Brown truly started providing for himself that he really came to understand how much effort went into making his childhood as enjoyable as it was. A middle child sandwiched between two sisters, Keisha and Alyssa, Brown always had people looking out for him.

“I was never the type that needed physical punishment,” Brown said. “Just the thought of letting my parents down was enough to make me feel bad, I’m a very empathetic person and I always am thinking, ‘Damn, they gave me so much and I have to give back in some way.'”

Through all his struggles, the family along with some close friends have been his rock. In his mind, something needed to change to share the gift he most wanted to give — making an Olympic dream come true — with those who went through the hard yards by his side. As Brown continued to work with Mitchell, he started to build another family. Mitchell had several athletes under his tutelage at the time and they all trained together as a team in Clermont, Fla. Among them was Justin Gatlin, now a five-time Olympic medallist including gold in the 100m at the 2004 Athens Games and a 12-time world championship medallist. (He also was dealt doping bans in 2001 and 2006.) Gatlin won silver in the 100m final Brown failed to make.

“He was quiet, observant,” Gatlin said of his first impressions of Brown. “I could tell he was the kind of guy that once he gets it down, he was gonna be tough to race against and he came off as a great guy. I don’t want to sound cliché but he’s a great guy and it shows. When he first came to the group he gave a balance to it and it shows.”

Brown congratulates Justin Gatlin after a semifinal race at the 2015 world championships. Gatlin, the 2004 Olympic champion in the 100 metres, has served as a mentor for the younger Canadian. (Getty Images)

Gatlin pounced on opportunity to help

Gatlin also noticed certain quirks that suggested Brown wasn’t maximizing his potential. He can recall Brown looking as though his mind was spinning while warming up for training or even before races and wondering what he could possibly be thinking. As fate would have it, he would have his answer when Mitchell organized one of his customary gatherings with the group to share whatever was on their mind and crowdsource ways to find their greatness ahead of the 2017 world championships.

When Brown opened up about overthinking and imagining all the bad consequences of failing to perform, it was Gatlin who quickly pounced on the opportunity to help.

“I think as I’ve gone up in age I’ve really realized with the success I’ve had, the failures were always a result of me putting too much pressure on myself,” Gatlin said. “When he expressed that, I had to immediately tell him, ‘Don’t put that pressure on you, man. Keep loving what you do, we get to a point where we turn pro, get our contracts, things like that, we get stressed about our obligations and bills and we lose that love for track.’ I told him to never lose that love for track and take that pressure away, you don’t need it.”

I told him to never lose that love for track and take that pressure away, you don’t need it.– Justin Gatlin, 100m gold medallist at 2004 Athens Olympics

Those words didn’t quite resonate with Brown at first, but eventually hit home as he continued to turn over every possible stone to find some way to alter his trajectory.

“I guess that’s just wisdom where depending on where you are in life it means a different thing,” Brown said. “That was one of those scenarios where it made more sense when I started reflecting.

Gatlin, right, and Brown, from right, exercise during an evening training session at the 2019 world championships in Qatar. (The Associated Press)

“Just that simple switch is what you almost manifest and if you’re thinking about everything that can go wrong, that’s where your mind is gonna go,” Brown said. “It’s almost this subconscious thing that’s saying ‘You’re gonna mess up.’ That could still be existing but at the same time, if you’re thinking about what can go right, that’s a much more, almost delusional good space to be in because you’re convincing yourself that you have a much greater chance than you probably do.”

As Brown dug further into inculcating Gatlin’s words within his mental approach, he started to realize the value of visualizing the best version of himself and recognizing that if he’s going to accomplish everything he and everyone around him wants, he needs to want it at every moment.

After the 2016 Olympics, the public expectations and spotlight on Brown waned as Andre De Grasse, two years his junior, rose to prominence with his silver and bronze medals in the 200 and 100, respectively, at those Games..

The two have known each other since they were adolescents and Brown has gone from explaining what it’s like to attend college in the States to competing with him in everything from the track to fantasy basketball. While the two share a strong bond, there’s no running away from the fact that they both have the same ultimate goal on the track, and only one of them can have it.

Brown, right, and Andre De Grasse have been in competition with each other since they started racing. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

‘Both want the same thing’

“We both want the same thing which is to be No. 1 in Canada and there was a point where the goal kinda was to beat him, but I’ve evolved past that where that’s just a part of the path to where I want to go,” Brown said. “It will involve beating him in some points but that’s not my main objective … my goals are bigger than just beating one person.”

As Canada zoned in on the allure of De Grasse and his bubbling bromance with Usain Bolt, Brown zoned in on himself. His attention to detail went to another level as he became hyper-focused on both his diet and training methods. The 2017 world championships in London presented an opportunity to test Brown’s newfound mental fortitude and perspective. Staying positive in Diamond League competition was one thing; at a marquee event entirely another. De Grasse was forced to miss the event after suffering a hamstring strain and that dampened national expectations, but Brown was locked in on what he could accomplish.

WATCH | Brown holds off De Grasse to defend national title:

Aaron Brown edged Andre De Grasse in a photo finish to capture his second consecutive 100-metre title at the Canadian track and field championships. 0:21

“There was no shadow or whatever you want to call it and so it was kinda like, ‘Who’s gonna be our guy?’ and I thought, ‘Oh, why can’t I go back to it?,” Brown said. “Once upon a time I was the person expected to do something so why can’t I show up? I took that as my own personal challenge like hey, everyone’s sad that our Canadian hero is gone, but I can fill the void, I’m talented too.”

Brown dreamed it, visualized it, and executed to perfection. He ran the second-fastest 200 (20.08 seconds) of his career to that point and the first time he won a first round at a senior championship. The next 45 minutes felt like a major release, he was actually doing it. The cameras, the fans, the pressure, none of it mattered. The semifinal was going to be an opportunity to extend the march, until it wasn’t. With Brown revved up and ready to push on, he received notice that he was being disqualified for having stepped on the track line. Per the international athletic rules, any athlete who steps off their lane – and that includes stepping on the line – is automatically disqualified.

Brown and De Grasse maintain a solid friendship though they both are pursuing the same goal – to be the Olympic champion. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

The test was even bigger now. Brown had done everything right in the lead-up to this event, he ran his race and looked to be making the leap. Now he was being curtailed by a mistake he had no idea he committed. It brought him back to that dark place. Brown pouted, was frustrated, exasperated, and refused to watch the final. Was this just a case of bad luck or was it destiny? What did all the mental work matter if things were going to find their own way to fall apart anyway?

Upon returning to Winter Garden, where Brown has been based since 2014, he rewatched the race to understand what went wrong. The replay had an impact Brown considers the biggest turning point of his career to this point. He saw that he indeed did everything right, that he – in his coach’s words – “ran easy” and got the proof he needed that he can actually perform on the big stage. The disqualification quickly went to the wayside – nothing but a random mistake, that’s an easy fix. The meat and bones of his performance were as good as he could have imagined. That’s what he held onto.

“Even though immediately after I got to a really low point, when I come back out of it I realized what I did,” Brown said. “It was like, ‘I actually put it together,’ what I thought I could do I went out and did it. So, just because that opportunity was lost, take this and go forward with it.”

Adding to his confidence was the reaction of those around him. While he once dreaded even engaging in conversation after disappointing those he most cherishes, their recognition that he had thoroughly impressed stuck with Brown.

“It starts with something small and people don’t realize the magnitude of it and what it does for your confidence but it’s small, little things that make a difference, Brown said. “It just kept growing and growing and growing and where I am today is more confident than I’ve ever been just because that one moment in 2017 that was like a horrible moment for some people and makes them give up, that was a turning point to where I thought I was reinforcing my belief in myself.”

Results thereafter took on a snowball effect. In 2018, Brown ran his first sub-20 time in the 200, became the national champion in both the 100 and 200, won silver in the 200 of the NACAC (North American, Central American, and Caribbean) Championships, and another silver in the 200 of the Commonwealth Games. At the 2019 world championships, he cruised through the heats and made the finals of both the 100 and 200m races. He started doing better in Diamond Leagues as well, winning gold in the 200 of the 2019 IAAF Diamond League Shanghai.

“Aaron will be a first ballot Canadian Hall of Famer, no question about it,” Haynes said. “He’s a special, talented guy. When you look at the history of Aaron, competing alongside him for so many years, against him for so many years, he’s been successful at every level. As a youth, as a junior, collegiate athlete, and the professional ranks.”

As the results have fulfilled the process, Brown has kept striving for better and Gatlin has noticed a big difference from the man he first met five years ago.

“Way more confident, I remember him leaving to go to Canada the year before he won nationals for the first time and he was very poised, he was very calm,” Gatlin said. “It seemed like he was enjoying putting in the hard work to be in the shape that he’s in. The years before that, he always seemed very nervous: nervous about getting practice right, nervous about competition. Now, what I see in him is he enjoys breaking down different aspects of practice, learning how to get better while getting in shape and I think him learning how to have a season like this will give him a confidence he’s never had before.”

Brown has become a true professional and student of the track. While he was once going through the motions of the daily grind, he now embraces every facet of it. Ahead of Tokyo, Brown is focusing on details as minute as getting a lower angle exit from the blocks and the centrifugal force of his final turn in the 200. The once quiet teammate who kept to himself is now full of questions and conversations on finding every tiny speck that could be the difference in him fulfilling his dream or not.

“At some point I just had to decide I’m gonna be who I think I can be and at the end of the day if I’m who I am or who I think I am, I’m satisfied with that,” Brown said. “You run more freely with that mindset, I just had to let that perfectionism and all that other stuff go to the wayside because that’s just not a way to be as a professional athlete.”

Miraitowa is the official mascot of the Tokyo Games, a name based on the Japanese words “mirai” which means future and “towa” for eternity. Its personality is inspired by the Japanese proverb “learn from the past and develop new ideas.” Brown will add another to his plush collection when the time comes, but the medal he hopes to earn would represent both the past he’s learned from and a legacy that lasts forever.

“I want to make sure that I’m seizing the opportunities and so, I have to tell myself that I’d always beat myself up about my past performances,” Brown said. “Now I always just let it go and focus on the next opportunity, that’s my mindset, ‘What’s next?'”

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