Canada's Gabriela DeBues-Stafford chasing history at track and field worlds
Toronto native has emerged as one of the world's top women middle-distance runners
At the first IAAF world championships to be held in the Middle East, there is the real possibility that a Canadian woman may blaze a trail on the track in Doha.
Gabriela DeBues-Stafford has emerged from relative obscurity to become a legitimate medal threat in one of the most competitive of all athletic endeavours.
She runs the middle distance — the 1,500 metres, or metric mile — and all of a sudden this 24-year-old psychology major from the University of Toronto is ranked fourth in the world in her gruelling discipline.
Her debut season on the Diamond League circuit — a series of competitions which draws only the finest runners on the planet — saw DeBues-Stafford place third in the final in Zurich. She also made the final of the 5,000 in Brussels and wound up finishing a close seventh.
WATCH | DeBues-Stafford primed after breakthrough season:
Doubling up and being a threat over these two vastly different distances is almost unheard of in track and field. But it's not just the fact that she's done it. It's the grandiose and thrilling way she's gone about her rise to prominence that's causing those in the know to sit up and take notice.
In 2019 alone, DeBues-Stafford has claimed five long-standing Canadian records, including the indoor mile and 1,500 as well as the outdoor mile, 5,000 and 1,500. The latter was held since 1985 by Regina's Lynn Kanuka, an Olympic bronze medallist at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles in the 3,000.
In one shining season, DeBues-Stafford has literally eclipsed a bevy of marks which survived more than one generation of Canadian middle-distance stars. She has surpassed one of her idols in Vancouver's Leah Pells, who was once the top-ranked 1,500 runner in the world and who finished fourth in that race at the 1996 Olympics.
WATCH | DeBues-Stafford thrilled with new record:
"Leah Pells and I have been in touch since 2018 and that has been an incredibly powerful relationship for me," DeBues-Stafford said via email from a training camp in South Africa as she prepared for the world championships.
"As I've learned about her story, I see a lot of myself in her and that has made her accomplishments feel more achievable to me as well."
DeBues-Stafford also remembered meeting Kanuka and being encouraged by her at the World University Games in 2015 where she scored one of her first international breakthroughs by winning a silver medal in the 1,500.
"Having these experiences with these legends of Canadian track has humanized their feats and helped instill this belief in myself that if they could do it, I could do it too," the Toronto native said. "I feel so lucky and grateful that they have been so supportive and kind to me."
One of DeBues-Stafford's rivals for the podium in Doha will be her training partner, Laura Muir of Great Britain, the two-time Diamond League champion and European champion. The Canadian moved to Scotland a year ago to join Muir and the program of her coach, Andy Young.
Since then, DeBues-Stafford has blossomed while lowering national records, including her own, seven times. She's been a factor in every race she's entered and most impressively, she became the first Canadian woman to crack the four-minute barrier in the 1,500 by running three minutes 59.59 seconds in Zurich.
WATCH | DeBues-Stafford breaks 4-minute barrier:
She credits her association with Young and Muir for transforming her career and enlightening her to the possibilities.
"Laura is definitely the grittiest and most courageous runner I have seen, period," DeBues-Stafford said. "I've always been curious to see how fast I can go, and the easiest way to get better in anything is to surround yourself with people who have already done what you want to do and learn from them."
"Many families belong to sports fandoms, but instead of the Leafs we grew up on the stories of the greats in the track world," she said. "There was Zola Budd, Haile Gebrselassie, the cross-country dominance of Grete Waitz, and the trading of world records between Seb Coe and Steve Cram, so that family culture definitely encouraged us to believe that running is a sport worth doing."
But for DeBues–Stafford this is about more than a worthwhile pursuit. This is about running with the best in the business, something which she's consistently demonstrated she's capable of doing in this world championship season as the journey to her second Olympics continues.
She is never out of contention and gives no quarter to the once dominant Kenyan and Ethiopian stars she goes toe-to-toe with in every outing.
No Canadian woman has won a world championship or Olympic medal in the marquee 1,500 event. To be honest, in the recent past, with the exception of Pells, Canadian women have frequently been written off as also-rans who might consider it a major victory to make a final.
DeBues-Stafford is revolutionizing that mindset.
"I really think that anything is possible," she said. "To medal in the 1,500 right now, it's not enough to be one of the best 1,500 runners today … you have to be one of the best in the history of the sport. But hey, anything can happen if I play my cards right and get a decent bit of luck. It's a very exciting time to be in the 1,500."
Her favourite race comes down to tactics, but also to guts. And DeBues-Stafford is quickly gaining a reputation for leaving nothing in the tank as she strives for each finish line. Race after race she stages dramatic and physically desperate kicks down the stretch to serve notice she's a force to be dealt with over the long haul.
"Emotionally I feel elated and extremely satisfied, but physically I also feel very sick and am in a great deal of pain. I've even had to stop post-race interviews because I suddenly have to puke," she said. "It's a lot of pressure but nothing compares to the feeling you have when you can race and move with the best in the world. It's just an amazing feeling."
This season has rocketed DeBues-Stafford to the front of the pack and into the spotlight to the point that she now claims status as a Canadian headliner at these world championships. A year ago, few casual fans of track and field had ever heard of her.
Still, as she forges ahead, Canada's breakout star leaves little doubt where she's headed in the not-too-distant future.
"I think it's a reasonable goal to break all my Canadian records again in the lead up to Tokyo," she said. "As for the Olympics themselves, anything is possible. I'm not comfortable saying outright what I want, but everyone on the start line has the same goal in mind. It's not a secret what our goal is."
It would seem DeBues-Stafford isn't satisfied hanging with the middle of the pack or struggling to keep pace.
She has set her sights on winning the big one.
And that's how one Canadian runner aims to make middle-distance magic at these world championships in the Middle East.
CBC Sports has exclusive live coverage of the 2019 World Track & Field Championships from Sept. 27-Oct. 6. View the stream and broadcast schedule here. To add the complete event schedule to your calendar, click here.