For a moment, the announcers at the recent Canadian track and field championships thought Bismark Boateng had won the tightest 100-metre final in the history of the meet. And so did Boateng.The 26-year-old from Toronto let out a jubilant roar and ripped off his race singlet in celebration.
"I took my shirt off and ran around the field like a soccer player," Boateng said, laughing.
Boateng would end up second to Aaron Brown, just a thousandth of a second separating the two. Three-time Olympic medallist Andre De Grasse was third.
But Boateng's impressive result against the country's fastest men confirmed a choice he made a few years ago, when he decided to quit soccer and follow his heart to the track.
"I grew up playing soccer my whole life, but deep down I always wanted to do track," Boateng said. "In elementary school, I did track one time and I beat some guys who were much older than me, so deep down I knew I wanted to do track."
Boateng's speed at Ryerson's open tryouts earned him a spot as a striker, and for two seasons he'd sprint onto through balls and blow past defenders.
Ivan Joseph, the Rams' former coach and athletic director, remembers Boateng coming to him to talk track.
"He was a guy who (would) get a lot, a lot of breakaways like he was fast. The man was he quick," Joseph said. "I said to him 'Bismark, I think you have a really bright future in track."'
Ryerson doesn't have a track team, so Boateng transferred to the cross-town rival York Lions and would win gold in the 60 metres at the Canadian university championships in 2015 and silver in 2016.
His big breakthrough came when he got a call to replace De Grasse, who was still rehabilitating his hamstring injury, at the Commonwealth Games in April in Australia.
Boateng's first major international meet wasn't worthy of any shirtless celebrations — he qualified for the 200-metre semifinals, but not the final, and he and Oluwasegun Makinde dropped the baton in the heats of the 4x100 relay. But for perhaps the first time, Boateng felt at home on track and field's big stage.
"For some reason, I wasn't nervous or anything, I felt I belonged on the international level, so that's what gave me the confidence. I thought 'I think I'm good for this,"' Boateng said.
The five-foot-10 sprinter ran a fast 10.14 in the 100 a couple of weeks later in Baton Rouge, La.
His coach Charles Allen wasn't surprised by the breakthrough, saying this season has been all about keeping Boateng healthy after some injuries and exposing him to international competition.
"That (fast time in Louisiana) was the plan all along," Allen said. "Nobody really knows what's in the mind of the coach, other than you kind of let the athlete in on what they need to know as they're preparing . . . and when he had the opportunity to compete at the Commonwealth Games and prepare with Team Canada that really helped his motivation and allowed him to commit more to what he is doing in terms of execution."
Allen, a former 110-metre hurdler who was sixth at the 2004 Athens Olympics, said Boateng's need to make a living outside track — he's a personal trainer — has thrown a wrench in his training in the past. Boateng is at that tricky in-between stage athletes inevitably face where they need to train full-time, but aren't quite at the level globally to make any money doing it.
"But we made a pact: you can't sacrifice what we're trying to get done on the track for anything, because one injury or one step backwards really takes away a lot," Allen said. "So he made that commitment to put track first in every way. He made a heck of a sacrifice and I'm glad it's paying off for him."
Boateng receives some federal funding to covers expenses for things like travel and physiotherapy as a "next generation" athlete, but that "doesn't allow him to live. He has everyday bills and so forth," Allen said.
The coach is with Boateng in Ireland this week for a pair of meets, two more opportunities to line up against international competition in preparation for the NACAC championships.
The NACAC meet, Aug. 10 to 12 at Varsity Stadium, is Canada's major international meet of the summer, and includes athletes from North America, Central America and the Caribbean.