Gabriela DeBues-Stafford (l) in her 1500m semi-final at 2019 World Championships (© Getty Images)
It is not likely Gabriela DeBues-Stafford will forget 2019 in a hurry.
Making the permanent move from Toronto to Glasgow to be part of a new training group, setting no less than 11 PBs and eight national records in an electrifying campaign and also getting married - the Canadian middle-distance athlete could quite rightly regard 2019 as her Annus mirabilis.
Yet there is little question, that on the track at least, the absolute highlight was posting a stunning Canadian 1500m record of 3:56.12 to place sixth in an awe-inspiring World Athletics Championships final in Doha.
“I made lots of big changes, many leaps of faith and it all worked out really well,” recalls the amiable and chatty DeBues-Stafford. “It is nice when you take a risk and it pays off.
“Looking back on my 3:56 I still feel shocked but also grateful. I never thought I would get to run a time like that. It has broadened my horizons because if I can run 3:56, how fast can women go... period?”
Strong running roots
Raised in Toronto into a running family, Gabriela’s father, James Stafford, was a four-time Canadian World Cross Country Championship representative and her aunt Sara Gardner also competed for Canada at the world cross.
Some of DeBues-Stafford’s earliest memories were going for a run with her younger sister Lucia (who now has a 1500m PB of 4:09.17) and with her mother, Maria-Luisa - who died from leukemia when DeBues-Stafford was 13 – or father.
“My dad fostered an environment that was conducive towards positive feelings about running - physical activity was always important to him and the family,” recalls DeBues-Stafford.
As a youngster she competed seriously as an Irish dancer but running was always likely to win her affections.
Global debut at 2013 world cross
She was initially no world-beating runner but her determination and desire to improve saw her qualify to compete in the 2013 World Cross Country Championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland.
Making her first national team was a pivotal moment in her career, although she has challenging memories of the event.
“Back then I had issues around race anxiety, I had stomach problems the night before the race and when I got to the start line I was absolutely trashed,” explains DeBues-Stafford whose problem with race anxiety can be connected to her mum’s premature death.
Finding the experience “overwhelming” she trailed home 75th in the women’s U20 race. Yet she was determined to learn from the experience and bounced back the following year to place ninth in the 3000m final at the World U20 Championship in Eugene, Oregon.
Coached back then by the University of Toronto Track Club coach Terry Radchenko, whom she describes as like “a second father,” the following year she gained a lot of confidence from winning a World University Games 1500m silver medal in Korea.
Then in 2016, and still aged just 20, DeBues-Stafford bettered her own expectations by winning the Canadian title in Edmonton and qualifying for the Olympic Games in Rio.
It was a momentous achievement but by the time she stepped on the start line in Rio her energy reserves were spent.
“It was so euphoric to win the trials and make the Olympics but I think because so much tension had been released, I totally crashed,” she recalls.
Despite her fragile physical state she ran a respectable in 4:09.45 in Rio – a little under three seconds down on her PB at that time – to place ninth in her heat.
More progress was made in 2017. She scalped almost three seconds from her 1500m PB (down to 4:03.55), retained her Canadian title and reached the 1500m semi-finals at the World Athletics World Championships in London.
In 2018 she clinched a hat-trick of Canadian titles, exited the 1500m heats at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games and failed to advance her outdoor 1500m PB.
Frustrated, DeBues-Stafford felt she had reached a crossroads and sought change.
“Under Terry’s guidance I ran 4:03 (for 1500m) and I was really grateful to him but at the same time I was thinking I don’t want to stay in Toronto for the rest of my running career,” she adds. “I wondered what it would be like to experience a different programme.”
She initially looked at professional running group options in the US but engaged at the time to Rowan (the pair married in January 2019) a British national, she looked across the Atlantic to her future.
Sharing the same management agency as European 1500m champion Laura Muir and European U23 800m and 1500m gold medallist Jemma Reekie her manager set up an opportunity to connect with their coach, Andy Young, at the 2018 Birmingham Diamond League.
A move to Scotland
A week later the pair had a longer phone conversation, where it was agreed she would join the group in the autumn of 2018.
“I didn’t have to think too long about it because I knew it was an amazing opportunity to train with the best in the world,” she adds. “It was exciting to know I was going to be given every opportunity to find out how good I can be.”
After dipping her toe in the water at her new training base in the Scottish city of Glasgow in the fall of 2018 she returned for a stint to finalise her psychology degree in Toronto before making the move permanent to Scotland earlier this year (2019).
Adapting quickly to life in her new environment she says Glasgow already “feels like home” – although the 24-year-old admits adjusting to the new training regime was demanding.
“The intensity is very hard,” she says. “Volume-wise the training is the same (as previously) but we do our runs at a faster pace,” adds DeBues-Stafford, who says Young gives the training group no prior warning as to what session they will run. “I’ve definitely gotten a lot stronger.”
She has also thrived under Young’s guidance.
“Andy is no nonsense, you cannot make any excuses with him but that is good because he keeps you accountable,” she explains. “He may be no nonsense but he has a good sense of humour, is fun to be around and creates a great training environment.”
The Canadian has also benefited from being part of a world-class training group. Muir’s hard-working attitude has proved infectious, according to DeBues-Stafford, who adds: “I’ve learned so much from her (Muir). Somebody said you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. Just being around Laura you have to step up your game.”
Landmark 2019 season
DeBues-Stafford first hinted at her progression after posting a national indoor mile record of 4:24.80 in Boston in January - the first of her eight Canadian records in 2019.
Yet in a season of so many landmark moments one of her standout performances came at the London Diamond League when she finished third – behind Muir – in 4:00.26 to trim 0.01 from Lynn Williams’ 33-year-old national 1500m record.
“That was the point I knew good things were going to happen,” she explains. “It was surreal that record had stood for so long and I only broke it by 0.01.”
In her words, “the train got rolling” in 2019. She bettered her 1500m mark with a 3:59.59 performance in Zurich. In Monaco she posted a Canadian mile record of 4:17.87, meanwhile she set three national 5000m records – the last of which was a 14:44.12 run in Brussels.
In Doha, DeBues-Stafford impressively advanced through the rounds to achieve her first goal of a place in the final - even if she then had to undergo a challenging session ahead of the medal race with Young watching all her previous 1500m races in 2019.
“He tore a lot of them to shreds and would point out the mistakes I would keep on repeating,” she explains. “But I knew I was capable of winning a medal in the final but my biggest goal in the final was to execute a good race.”
Doha final shock
Unfortunately, for DeBues-Stafford a medal was out of reach on this occasion but she executed the finest race of her career to decimate her national 1500m record in 3:56.12. In the greatest women’s championship 1500m final in history Sifan Hassan won with a blistering championship record of 3:51.95. Olympic champion Faith Kipyegon set a Kenyan record of 3:54.22 in silver with Ethiopia’s Gudaf Tsegay posting a PB of 3:54.38 for bronze. In a further testament to the absolute quality of the race Shelby Houihan of the US set an Area record of 3:54.99 for fourth with training partner Muir in fifth (3:55.26).
“We were all in shock after the race,” she recalls. “I don’t think any of us were expecting to run that fast. It was insane. I feel really grateful to have run in that race because you rarely get the chance to run in such a fast race when you are fit enough to run that quickly.”
Post-Doha, DeBues-Stafford has returned to her Scottish training base and also spent a period training in South Africa. No longer simply “surviving” many of the workouts as she did last year she is adopting a day by day approach to a huge 2020 campaign highlighted by the Tokyo Olympic Games.
“I would love to PB again and become a better race tactician,” she says of her hopes for 2020. “I’m just working hard on getting fitter and targeting that Olympic final. At the end of the day, it is just about improving and seeing how good I can become.”
Steve Landells for World Athletics