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The news has spread pretty rapidly that Danny Kassap, a 28-year-old Canadian marathoner, died early on Monday morning. (Here’s the article from Canadian Running magazine.) Since then, I’ve been mulling over what to say here, how to pay tribute to one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met — but I’m at a bit of a loss. He was a great friend and an unstoppable force of nature, and the reason so many people are remembering him right now has very little to do with how fast a runner he was.
One important point: his friends are currently raising money to cover the costs of his funeral and burial, the details of which are still being sorted out. His mother has requested that his body be sent back to the Congo if at all possible, but the costs may be prohibitive. They’re accepting donations at www.dannykassapmemorial.com.
Back in early 2008, I wrote an article about Danny for Canadian Running magazine. It was a hopeful time for Danny: after years of limbo, he was finally on track to receive his landed immigrant status. A few months after this article appeared, he went on to receive his citizenship, and then headed to the Berlin Marathon that fall, where he first collapsed. Here’s the article in full, which I hope captures something of Danny beyond his speed:
[From Canadian Running magazine, March 2008]
On a brisk November day in Brockville, Ontario, marathoner Danny Kassap strides smoothly across the frozen, uneven ground of a local park. Packed tightly around him are six of the province’s best long-distance runners, including several veterans of the national team. Halfway through the 10K race for the provincial cross-country running title, the group has already left the closest pursuers far behind. As the competitors eye each other warily, listening closely to their breathing to figure out who’s feeling good and who’s labouring, Kassap decides the time has come. Moving to the front, he presses the pace, stringing the pack out behind him.
With sub-zero temperatures and winds that make it feel five or six degrees colder, most of the runners sport extra layers underneath their racing gear: thermal long-sleeve shirts, headbands and hats, gloves, and in some cases long stretch tights. But Kassap, 25, is wearing only a sleeveless singlet, shorts and no hat, his only concession to the cold being a pair of light gloves.
Kassap and Derek Nakluski, a 25-year-old from Kitchener, put a gap on the pack as they sprint up the grassy hills at the far end of the course. Nakluski finally pulls away to win in 31:22, with Kassap earning the silver medal six seconds behind. In the gymnasium of the Brockville Memorial Centre, Kassap eagerly pulls on layer after layer of warmer clothing, happy to be finished and out of the cold.
“I wore the singlet to impress people,” he jokes afterward. “To say, ‘Look, I’m Canadian!’”
It was at these same provincial cross country championships, six years earlier, that the Canadian running world first became aware of Danny Kassap. These days, he’s the country’s greatest hope for the future of the marathon, a gifted and hard-training runner who has already triumphed over international fields at marathons in Toronto and Montreal, who dreams of representing the country at the Beijing Olympics this summer. In 2001, he was a 19-year-old living in a Toronto youth shelter, speaking no English, utterly alone after leaving his family behind in the strife-torn Democratic Republic of Congo to seek refuge in Canada.
Kassap was one of a reported 106 athletes from all over Africa who sought asylum in Canada after Ottawa hosted the Francophone Games in July 2001. Congo was embroiled in a civil war that has claimed more than four million lives since 1998, making it the most bloody single conflict since the Second World War. Kassap says his mother had spoken out against the government at a local meeting in the family’s home town of Lubumbashi, the country’s second biggest city. Shortly afterwards, soldiers came to their home and took Kassap’s father away; he himself was bound and beaten, leaving him with scars on his arm that are still visible.
He fled to the capital, Kinshasa, and with the help of the national athletics coach he hid out in the track and field stadium, where he had previously raced and trained. The coach then helped him get out of the country by selecting Kassap to run the 5000 metres at the Francophone Games. Before he left, his mother told him to stay in Canada and make a new life for himself. In Ottawa, Kassap faced top-notch international competition, and his preparation had been far from ideal. He struggled to a 10th-place finish in a time well off his personal best.
During the Games, he began asking other athletes where in Canada he should stay. The only two cities he had heard of were Toronto and Montreal – and Toronto was a slight favourite because he had watched the Toronto Raptors play basketball on TV back in Congo. The athletes he asked recommended Toronto, and they helped him look up the city’s Francophone Centre in the phone book. That phone number was the only Toronto contact he had when he arrived in the city.
In September 2001, Ross Ristuccia got a telephone call from a woman at Covenant House, the Toronto shelter for homeless youth where Kassap was staying. Ristuccia was the distance running coach at the University of Toronto, and also trained a group of high-school and post-collegiate runners. The woman said they had a young runner who had defected after the Francophone Games, who was looking for a coach.
“I’ve had calls like this before, so I didn’t take it too seriously,” Ristuccia recalls. Nonetheless, he told the woman where he and his group trained, and waited to see what would happen. “He showed up at Sir Winston Churchill Park with my name written on a little piece of paper,” Ristuccia says. “And we took it from there.”
By a stroke of luck, Ristuccia was a French teacher, and Kassap was fluent in French (Congo is a former colony of Belgium), in addition to Swahili and a tribal language. With the turmoil of the previous few months, Kassap had been doing very little training, “so he didn’t look like a world-beater at first,” Ristuccia says. But his talent quickly began to show in workouts over the next few months.
In November 2001, he travelled to Hamilton with Ristuccia’s University of Toronto Track Club team for the Ontario cross country championships. To the surprise of the spectators gathered along the fairways of Chedoke Golf Course, the unknown Kassap ran to a convincing victory in the junior race, leaving the reigning Ontario high-school champion in his wake. Kassap had arrived – but his troubles were far from over.
While several other athletes who sought asylum after the Francophone Games were swiftly granted refugee status, Kassap’s application hit several frustrating and sometimes inexplicable snags. As the process stretched from months into years, his quest to stay in Canada began to look like a race with no finish line.
Kassap’s unquenchable thirst for hard training has become legendary among Toronto runners over the past six years. His smooth, economical stride sometimes appears effortless – but that’s an illusion, says Matt McInnes, a two-time Canadian marathon champion who trained regularly with Kassap before moving from Toronto to Ottawa last summer.
“It can be frustrating when you’re running as hard as you can, and it seems like Danny is just floating along beside you,” he says. “But it’s not easy for him.”
McInnes recalls doing group tempo runs with Kassap not long after his arrival in Canada. The group would run along Toronto’s Belt Line trail, then do loops of Mount Pleasant Cemetery, with the pace gradually accelerating until only McInnes and Kassap were left. Near the end of the workout, McInnes would be racing as hard as he could, while Kassap appeared to be in complete control. It was only later that Kassap admitted that he had sometimes thrown up from the exertion while jogging back home after these tempo runs.
The harder he works in training, Kassap figures, the easier the races will be. “When I’m at the start line, I’m never stressed,” he says. “There’s no point, because it’s too late to change anything by then. When I’m training, though, I have that pressure.”
Kassap’s willingness to push his body to extremes has presented a challenge to Ristuccia, who has sometimes struggled reign his star pupil in. While preparing for a marathon, Kassap often runs 240 to 250 kilometres a week, significantly more than Ristuccia recommends.
“His body recovers really quickly, and he never misses days with sore muscles or anything like that,” Ristuccia says. “But I think the big change this year is that he’s being more disciplined, so that if he has a hard workout in the afternoon, then he won’t go out and run a hard 30-kilometre run that morning, for example.”
Given Kassap’s sky-is-the-limit potential, Ristuccia has been carefully plotting out a long-term plan to take his charge to the upper echelons of the sport. The realities of Kassap’s situation sometimes intrude, though. For one thing, he needs money to survive. Until last fall, he held down a part-time job doing food preparation at a restaurant. (He now works at the Rosedale and High Park locations of the Running Room in Toronto.) But a wildly improbable victory in his first ever marathon, in 2004, gave him a glimpse of the rewards available to top runners.
Kassap entered the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon in September 2004 as an unknown quantity, with the pre-race hype focused on three Kenyans and two-time Canadian Olympic marathoner Bruce Deacon. Before the race, Kassap told Ristuccia that he thought he could run two hours and 15 minutes— exactly equivalent to the ‘A’ standard for entry into the Athens Olympics that had taken place the month before. With 10K left in the 42.2K race, it came down to Kassap and veteran Kenyan Joseph Kahuga, duelling back and forth. Heading west along the shore of Lake Ontario, Kassap made a decisive move.
“When it started to be painful, I thought about Ross,” Kassap recalls, smiling at the memory. “I knew I had to keep going so I could say, ‘I told you so!’”
Sure enough, he broke the tape in 2:14:51, an impressive marathon debut that netted Kassap $12,000 in prize money – for him an unprecedented fortune. So far, so good. But then came the news that the Toronto International Marathon, a competing event held just three weeks after the Waterfront Marathon, would be offering an enormous $25,000 first prize. Top marathoners seldom attempt more than two marathons in a year, so Ristuccia counselled Kassap to think of his future and resist the lure of quick money. But he ran anyway, earning another $10,000 for a second-place finish in 2:17:47.
From a running perspective it was a rash decision, but in the real-world struggle to make a living, it’s difficult to find fault in his pursuit of a payday. After the race, Kassap called Ristuccia to tell him the result, and to smooth things over. “Congratulations,” Ristuccia told him. “But this time there’s no party.”
Plans for the future, meanwhile, were on hold. Kassap’s initial application for refugee status was turned down when the judge didn’t believe his account of his mother’s political activity and his father’s disappearance. Though he had now achieved Olympic standard, Kassap had no country to represent, and was unable to leave Canada. Fortunately, the government had issued a still-standing order to suspend all deportations to Congo because of the widespread dangers there.
With the help of fellow runners from the University of Toronto club, Kassap hired an immigration lawyer and applied for refugee status again in 2003, this time on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. After another two years of waiting, that application was rejected in 2005. “I still don’t understand why it was turned down,” Kassap’s lawyer, Michael Crane, told reporters afterward. This time, the judge ruled that Kassap would be unlikely to suffer “undue hardship” if he was returned to Congo, despite the continuing ban on deportations.
In May 2006, another appeal was rejected. This time the judge found that Kassap might have had a legitimate case for staying in Canada, but the previous judge’s rejection was not so “unreasonable” that it could be overturned. So Kassap carried on in limbo, running as fast as he could, but still unable to travel or compete outside Canada. The stress and frustration contributed to a period of inconsistent training and racing, Ristuccia says. But Kassap tried to keep his attention focused on running fast: “The rest, I can’t control,” he said.
In September 2006, he headed to Montreal to run a half-marathon in preparation for an attempt to regain his title at the Toronto Waterfront Marathon two weeks later. But a phone-call from a friend two days before the Montreal race alerted him to the fact that the prize money in the marathon being held on the same day was $10,000, compared to just $1,000 in the half-marathon. In addition, the race director would offer free room and board to elite competitors in the marathon, but not in the half-marathon. And the clincher: several of the top Kenyans slated to run in the marathon had been denied visas in Nairobi, leaving the race up for grabs.
So, despite having just finished a heavy week of training, Kassap decided to hop in the marathon at the last minute. “I slept with my legs in the air to help them recover,” he says. “And I decided to stay behind and not push it, to run for money not time.”
The race turned into a duel with two Moroccans who were working together, taking turns getting water bottles for each other. After the 30K mark, Kassap waited for a water stop, then surged when one of the runners slowed to pick up a water bottle. He then pulled away from the other runner, earning victory in the comparatively slow time of 2:20:19. “Then,” he says ruefully, “I had to wait for the phone call from Ross.”
Ristuccia didn’t have to wait long for vindication, as Kassap dropped out of the Waterfront Marathon after the halfway mark two weeks later. It was a good payday in Montreal, but a squandered opportunity to run a new personal-best time.
There was an important new development, though. A month earlier, Kassap had married Diane Tichbourne, a Toronto financial planner and runner whom he first met – appropriately enough – in the post-race area after winning his first marathon in 2004. As well as embarking on married life, Kassap now had another opportunity to apply for status as a landed immigrant.
As one of the runners training with Ristuccia’s University of Toronto Track Club group in 2001, I can still remember the September day when Kassap first showed up to run with us. We dusted off our high-school French to haltingly welcome him to the group, the city, and the country. He was unfailingly cheerful, with a wide smile that’s familiar to everyone who has spoken with him. But he was also quiet – an inevitable consequence of being suddenly dropped into an unfamiliar city and a foreign language.
A few months after he arrived, I moved away from Toronto for five years, and returned to find a completely new Danny – quiet no longer. During the long years of filing refugee claims, training and working in the restaurant, Kassap had also been taking ESL courses, and slowly but surely working his way through high-school equivalency courses. Not long after I returned, we passed each other while running through Mount Pleasant Cemetery, and his smile seemed unusually broad. “I graduated this morning,” he said.
With language no longer a barrier, Kassap’s natural sense of humour is obvious. He jokes with friends and meets new people easily. “Whenever we go running, people are always saying hi to Danny,” says his wife, Diane. “It seems like everybody knows him.” Still, there are things he’s not eager to talk about, like the past. He has been unable to get in contact with his mother or siblings since he left.
Instead, he is looking toward the future. On November 30, the final element of his landed immigrant application – a police background check from Congo, which had delayed the process for months– finally arrived. Rather than trusting the mail, he walked the document to the nearest immigration office and hand-delivered it. His landed immigrant status, he was told, would be granted in a matter of weeks. It’s very unlikely that citizenship will follow in time to compete at the 2008 Olympics, though it’s not impossible; Nigerian wrestler Daniel Igali, for instance, won gold at the 2000 Olympics, six years after seeking refuge in Canada at the 1994 Commonwealth Games.
Driving back from Brockville with Ristuccia after the cross-country championships, Kassap permits himself some daydreaming. Even without citizenship, landed immigrant status will finally let him leave the country, allowing him to contest some of the biggest, fastest and richest marathons in the world. As a natural road runner, he far prefers the smooth surfaces and flat courses of road races, not to mention the fact that cross-country meets like the one in Brockville don’t carry any prize money.
But his first choice is a race where he is unlikely to make money: the Flora London Marathon, held every April in Britain, has attracted the best marathoners in the world for the past few years. Rather than chasing prize money, Kassap wants to go where the competition is deepest, and aim for a personal best on the flat, fast London course.
The newly published Athletics Canada standards to qualify for the 2008 Olympics are tougher than the international standards, but they give Kassap reason for optimism. To be eligible for selection, he will have to run 2:14:00, improving the personal best he set in his first marathon by just under a minute. That’s why he wants to go to London: “I can get standard there,” he says with complete confidence.
Getting standard is something he can control; getting his citizenship in time is something he can’t. But after six long years, he finally knows that it’s in the works, so it’s OK to look ahead. “They’ll send me a book, and I’ll study, and then I’ll go and raise my hand” – he raises his hand in mock solemnity – “and say, ‘I swear to be a Canadian citizen, and to never run cross-country again.’” He glances over at Ristuccia, who smiles and shakes his head.
“And then I can go anywhere,” Kassap says, glancing out the window at the cars whipping by on Highway 401. “Congo, the United States, anywhere.” Perhaps even Beijing.