As a former employee of Bell Canada, perhaps it’s not surprising track and field coach Tony Sharpe has been able to ring up plenty of scholarships and success for his athletes.
Sharpe, the former Canadian Olympian, runs the Speed Academy, a developmental track and field club in Pickering, which has helped dozens of athletes get NCAA scholarships.
The club was founded in 2006 and Sharpe left his corporate account manager’s job at Bell to track athletes full-time a few years later.
“I’m a full-time coach, you know, not something people do often in Canada,” says Sharpe, 59, adding about 50 Speed Academy athletes have received scholarships.
“When I left Bell Canada in 2009, I decided that I had enough of a suit and tie and wanted to wear a tracksuit.”
The first and most notable scholarship earned by a Speed Academy athlete came in 2013 – sprinter Andre De Grasse, who went on to earn three medals at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016.
Ethan Bennett, 17, from Pickering High, grew up in Toronto and is a current member at the Speed Academy who has been running since he was 12. He runs 100-metre, 200-metre and 400-metre races and was inspired to join the club after learning De Grasse was there years before.
Bennett is in Grade 12 and wrote his U.S. college admission test in October. He is still waiting for the results.
“Getting ready for the whole thing was pretty stressful and definitely the day of was stressful,” says Bennett, who is keeping his options for next year.
Due to COVID-19 he’s unable to run in track and field at school or for any meets with the club, but he’s staying in shape at home.
Bennett says he looks at Sharpe as family, more than a coach.
“He’s always there whether it’s with track or with personal life,” says Bennett. “He’s always had my back and I know he’s definitely someone I could always count on.”
Sharpe was a sprinter who won a bronze medal in the 4 x 100-metre relay at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 and ended his career in 1988 after suffering an Achilles tendon injury.
Sharpe says he hasn’t had another student who went onto the Olympics since De Grasse, but there have been some who went on to the Canadian National Team and others who’ve ventured into different career paths like accounting and engineering.
“The real exciting part is watching the kids, progress in what I call the real world,” says Sharpe.
Shaquan Williams was one of the students at the club who trained with Sharpe for seven years. Williams was one of De Grasse’s teammates for a short time and currently works as an accountant.
“Our team wasn’t as big as it is now… no more than 30 people at most at a time,” says Williams, who attended school on a scholarship in New Jersey and still works there.
“It was a really tight, family-oriented environment and even up until I went to college, I would always come back and train with Tony.
“Tony always made sure our grades were right as well, his training was obviously amazing,” says Williams. “Tony always made sure that we’re focused on the main goal which was getting our free education.”
Williams was also the first to graduate from college in his family.
“I’m grateful for where I am you know,” says Williams. “I don’t think I’d be there if I had if I didn’t have that type of support, because I surely didn’t know what I was doing.”
Duan Asemota joined the club when he was in Grade 10 in 2012 and attended a junior college before attending Ohio State University.
“Almost like every athlete [Tony] has came in contact with, he’s able to get some scholarship to some type of school, whether it be in the States or Canada,” says Asemota. “He’s done that at a higher rate than anyone I seen do it for any sport.”
Asemota credits Sharpe with ensuring his athletes finish their education so they can get careers.
“So even if you want to finish track after, you can do it… you can continue knowing something’s in your back pocket.”
Asemota participated in the World University Games in Italy last year and came in fourth place for the indoor 60 metres.
“If it wasn’t for Tony, taking the chance on me and believing in me,” says Asemota. “A lot of stuff could be different for me, I’m always appreciative for the fact that he stuck around and still sticks around.”
The Speed Academy athletes are grateful to have a coach like Sharpe.
“[I] learned how to be a man, learning from like a role model, especially as a black person, to be an example in your community,” says Asemota. “He just taught me a lot of self-respect a lot of ways how to navigate through life and how to achieve success and also remain humble when you do so.”
Sharpe also married his high school sweetheart, Colene, who also ran track at the professional level and is one of the coaches at the club. They have 24-year-old twin daughters Summer and Taylor and a son, Mitchell, 25.
Sharpe has had 11 students on Canadian track teams from the Speed Academy and is hoping that number will grow, noting some will “be bidding for a spot for (the) Tokyo (Olympics, in 2021).”
His goal is to influence youth.
Track has given him the chance to do so and he is understandably proud of his club’s success.
“We are actually changing lives on a daily basis.”