There’s a new generation of sprinters emerging in world athletics and Canada’s Aaron Brown is one of them.
It’s Saturday afternoon in Stockholm’s historic Olympic Stadium. All around the track athletes go through their final preparations ahead of competition day on Sunday. Everyone has their own routine. The mood is pretty relaxed, athletes joking with each other, taking pictures of the stadium, coaches giving final instructions, physios loosening muscles.
In one corner of the stadium, headphones in and almost in his own little world, is Canada’s Aaron Brown. The sprinter has arrived in Stockholm from Oslo, where he went under 20 seconds for 200m for the first time in his career. There’s a calmness to Brown’s movements – a mix between yoga and dynamic stretches.
As we sit down the same evening to talk, the same tranquillity lies in the 26-year-old’s voice.
“I like to stay calm before the race,” says Brown. “I’m currently learning to play the piano. I love the piano, I love how it sounds. There are certain songs that really speak to me – I even listen to them when I warm up. Moonlight Senata, that’s one of the first songs I learnt how to play – a Beethoven song – or songs like Evanescence – My Immortal. It’s an array of songs that you maybe wouldn’t typically think I would know. Those type of songs keep me at peace and calm my spirit down.”
Once it gets to race day, the beat changes. “That’s when I go up-tempo, that’s when I want to be quick, fast paced.” Before that, Brown doesn’t want to be “too hyped” – over the years the former USC Trojan has learnt the hype-approach doesn’t work well for him.
Interestingly, it’s a theme that has slowly developed in the sprints over the last decades. Gone are the days of trash-talking in call-rooms or on warm-up tracks. The current crop of sprinters is a lot more considered.
“I prefer our generation of sprinters where there’s not as big egos,” admits Brown. “I just like people. These guys are my competitors, yes, but they’re also my friends and my contemporaries, so I don’t feel like we need to have this egomaniac bravado battle off the track.”
That is not to say sprinting has become boring. On the contrary: the sprints are as unpredictable as ever and the current crop is not shying away from competition.
Brown, who describes himself as a big fan of the sport as well, elaborates: “If you look at an event like the 100m hurdles – why we love it so much is because you don’t know who’s gonna win. Right, there’s dominant players, but there’s a lot of women in the race who are in contention and they don’t duck and dodge each other trying to save face and egos. They’re all out there competing with each other and we want all the sprints to be like that.
“We all love dominance and it was great to have the Usain Bolt era, but the other side of the coin is that now we are seeing competition. That is part of the sport, too. When you have a lot of people that are competitive, and you don’t actually know who is gonna win, you’re not just looking at one person, you are looking at the actual field and that makes it so much more exciting.”
He's got a point. This year’s 200m Diamond League rankings on the road to the final are incredibly tight. After six meets (four of them featured a scoring 200m) Brown is currently leading the standings by one point from world champion Ramil Guliyev, narrowly followed by Commonwealth champion Jereem Richards and last year’s surprise Diamond League champion Noah Lyles.
It is a big step for Brown, who growing up never wanted to become a track star. He was into the NBA, played soccer, baseball, American football. He was always fast, but didn’t take an interest in the sport until a local club coach pulled him aside in grade 10 when he clocked 11.5 for 100 metres in basketball shorts and trainers.
“I didn’t even know if that was good or not, I just wanted to win,” recalls Brown. The coach, Bill Stevens, offered to pay his club dues for the summer if he were to give track a real shot. “Normally I’d have been like ‘the summer is for me and my friends’, but he really wanted me to come because he saw something in me, so I thought, 'okay, I’ll try it out.'”
Fast forward ten years and the kid in basketball shoes has two world championship and one Olympic relay medal to his name. But after 2016, the year he became only the fourth Canadian to go sub-10 in the 100m and following the relay team’s success in Rio, 2017 proved a challenge for the Toronto native.
At the Canadian championships he false started in the 100m, only qualified for the 200m at the world champs. In London, he first suffered a bout of norovirus that was making the rounds, then clocked the fastest time in his heat only to be subsequently disqualified for a lane violation. For 2018 something had to change.
He sat out the indoor season to solely focus on the Commonwealth Games. It paid off as Brown brought home his first major individual senior medal, winning silver over 200m. Since then, he has gone from strength to strength.
“I really had that chip on my shoulder this year,” he admits. “It was kind of self-induced. How I performed over the years, I learnt how to compete at the highest level. It’s my fourth year as a professional and I feel that now I need to start making my mark.”
Following his medal-winning race in Gold Coast, Brown moved his focus on to this year’s Diamond League circuit. With every race he improved, from fourth in Doha (20.18) to third in Eugene (20.07) to second in Oslo, eventually resulting in a personal best of 19.98 – his first sub-20 clocking and a huge weight off his shoulders. In Stockholm he finished another strong second (20.07) behind the world champion.
“I’m just trying to improve and have that competitive mentality that I belong here, that I can challenge for a win, be consistent.”
That he can challenge for a win showed the week after Stockholm. In wet conditions, Brown ended world champion Guliyev’s brief three-race win streak at the Golden Spike meet in Ostrava. It was a welcome confidence boost ahead of next month’s Canadian Championships and the NACAC Championships in August, which takes places in Toronto – “my home town, so I definitely want to go there and show a good performance.”
Words: Michelle Sammet