Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Danny Kassap: Remembering a Great Running Friend

It's hard to believe I'll never see Danny Kassap's smiling face – or his unmistakable feet-kicking-the-butt running stride – at races anymore. The 28-year-old fixture of the Toronto running community died on Monday at Sunnybrook Hospital, a day after he turned his Sporting Life 10K race into a light jog to the finish, complaining that he wasn't feeling well. There's no word on the cause of death, but it's likely related to the after-effects of a virus-related heart attack he suffered at the 2008 Berlin Marathon.

When I became launch editor of Canadian Running in 2008, I assigned Alex Hutchinson to write a feature story on Danny for the premiere issue, which chronicled the Congo native's struggles to gain Canadian citizenship (a battle he eventually won). And in my very first editorial I recounted my first encounter with Danny, at the 2002 Backs in Motion 5K in Sunnybrook Park. Here's what I wrote:
This first issue of Canadian Running is about time in more ways than one. For manathoner Danny Kassap, profiled here by Alex Hutchinson, the clock is ticking on both his Canadian citizenship and a qualification time for the Olympics. Will the Congo native become a citizen in time for the Beijing Games? Can he shave enough time off his personal best to meet Canada’s rigid Olympic standard?

I first met Kassap at a 5K race in Toronto in 2002, not long after he burst onto the Ontario road racing scene. I had heard reports of a running phenomenon who had arrived in Ottawa with the Congolese team for the Francophone Games and hadn’t returned home. Coming from a war-ravaged country, I expected Kassap to be a sombre type, or at least somewhat subdued, but the guy I found lined up at the start of that 5K was positively chipper. Much like marathon world record holder Haile Gebrselassie, Kassap has a near-permanent I’m-so-happy-to-be-alive-and-running smile on his face.

In a brief chat before the race start, Kassap told me how glad he was to be in Canada. The gun went off and, in what would become a familiar sight, Kassap flew into the lead, his feet nearly kicking his butt. 'That could be the future of Canadian distance running,' I thought. Six years on, Kassap is still flying, still thrilled to be in Canada and desperate to represent our country at international races. His story is symbolic of how so many of the ups and downs of running are often mirrored in our everyday lives.

I'd eventually become good friends with Danny and must have seen him at 100 races or so in the past 10 years. And no matter what was going on in his life, he was always smiling. He came to Canada with nothing and left us with a legacy.

If you can, make a donation to a memorial fund to help pay for a burial in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, his old training grounds.