Road To The Olympic Games

Track and Field·Diamond League Final

'Running is just about races now': DeBues-Stafford checks nerves ahead of Zurich meet

Canada's Gabriela DeBues-Stafford will be looking to add a pair of Diamond League trophies to her five national track records set in 2019, starting with the women's 1,500 metres at Weltklasse Zurich on Thursday (CBCSports.ca, 2 p.m. ET).

Toronto native looks to add Diamond Trophies to record-breaking season

Gabriela DeBues-Stafford is a good bet to become the first Canadian woman to win a world championship medal in the 1,500 metres. (Michael Steele/Getty Images)

In her breakout season on the track featuring five Canadian records, it's hard to imagine a time when Gabriela DeBues-Stafford felt overwhelmed running two different races in a week and struggled to gain entry to a Diamond League event.

The Toronto native was 13 when her mom died from leukemia in 2009 and dealing with her loss triggered race anxiety, leaving DeBues-Stafford physically and mentally exhausted.

On the eve of the 2016 Olympic trials in Edmonton, DeBues-Stafford — then a runner for the University of Toronto — was so nervous she became physically ill. But 24 hours after making a call to U of T cross-country assistant coach Terry Radchenko, DeBues-Stafford won the women's 1,500 metres ahead of her Summer Games debut in Rio, where she placed ninth in a heat race but didn't advance to the semifinals.

"I still get nervous but it's not the same as the loaded feeling I had when I tried to separate grief from racing. Running is just about races now," says DeBues-Stafford, who is preparing for the first of two Diamond League Finals, starting Thursday at Weltklasse Zürich (CBCSports.ca, 2 p.m. ET).

DeBues-Stafford, now 23, is one of only two Canadian athlete this year to compete in different events at both Diamond League Finals — Crystal Emmanuel is racing the 100 and 200 metres — as she will also run the women's 5,000 in Brussels on Sept. 6.

Last year ... I was lost and unclear about what the future held for me, but I have recommitted myself to the sport and training seriously at a high level.— Runner Gabriela DeBues-Stafford, who has set 5 Canadian records this season

"It's surreal and exciting, the natural next step," she says over the phone from Scotland, where she lives with her husband Rowan. "I've worked real hard to be in this position.

DeBues-Stafford was covering the 1,500 in the 4:03.00 range to end the 2017 season but struggled to distinguish herself last year and made just one Diamond League appearance, clocking 4:07.51 for 11th place in Birmingham, U.K.

"Last year, my race nerves were out of control and taking away from the enjoyment of running," DeBues-Stafford recalls. "I was lost and unclear about what the future held for me, but I have recommitted myself to the sport and training seriously at a high level. I'm also not as timid making moves [in a race] and not second-guessing."

'Loaded memories'

Everything changed last August after DeBues-Stafford joined coach Andy Young's world-class program and began training with British-record holder Laura Muir. She wonders if leaving the many "loaded memories" in Toronto for a more relaxed training environment led to newfound success.

On July 20, DeBues-Stafford set her fifth Canadian record of 2019, stopping the clock in a personal-best 4:00.26 to beat Lynn Kanuka's near-34-year-old mark by 1-100th of a second in the 1,500 at the Müller Anniversary Games in London.

WATCH: Gabriela DeBues-Stafford earns 5th Canadian record of 2019:

Canada's Gabriela DeBues-Stafford finishes 3rd at Muller Anniversary Games with a time of 4:00.26. 6:30

DeBues-Stafford's other national records:

  • July 12: Ran 4:17.87 in the mile at Monaco to break Leah Pells' Canadian mark.
  • May 30: Clocked 14:51.59 in the 5,000 at her Diamond League season debut in Stockholm.
  • Jan. 26: Shattered the indoor 5,000 record in 14:57.45 in Glasgow.
  • Jan. 4: Covered the indoor mile in 4:24.80 at Boston.
In Thursday's 1,500 race at 2:48 p.m. ET, the Canadian will face world-record holder Genzebe Dibaba (3:50.07), fellow Ethiopian Gudaf Tsegay and 2016 indoor world champion Sifan Hassan of the Netherlands. Hassan and Tsegay are ranked 2-3 in the world while DeBues-Stafford is fourth.

"I feel like I'm a tier below," DeBues-Stafford says of her opponents. "They have that edge of years of experience and fitness on me. But it takes longer to recover from the 5,000 so racing the 1,500 first is good.

"It'll be interesting to see what happens in the 5,000. The Canadian record was the goal [this season] and [my coach and I] weren't expecting to be 70 metres from winning the [race in Stockholm]. I'm fit to run a good 5,000."

Other Canadians competing in Zürich:

Brittany Crew, women's shot put (1:40 p.m. ET): Crew, 25, enters the Diamond League Final aiming to better her Canadian record she raised to 19.07 metres three weeks ago in a silver-medal performance at the Pan Am Games in Lima. The 2018 Commonwealth Games bronze medallist also won a national title in July and has eight victories in 17 competitions this season but is still seeking her first Diamond League win of 2019.

WATCH | Canadian Brittany Crew scores Pan Am silver in women's shot put:

The 25-year-old set a new Canadian record with her throw of 19.07m as she captured a silver medal in the women's shot put event at the Pan Am Games. 0:47

Crystal Emmanuel, women's 200m (2:41 p.m.): Thursday marks only the fifth 200 of the season for Emmanuel, who matched her season best of 22.89 seconds with a fourth-place finish at Pan Ams. The Toronto native's best Diamond League placing was second on June 13 in Norway, where the 27-year-old also ran 22.89. Emmanuel is hoping to race the 100 and 200 next month at the world championships in Doha, Qatar.

Geneviève Lalonde, women's 3,000 steeplechase (2:23 p.m.): Lalonde, 27, clocked 9:31.07 at the Müller Grand Prix on Aug. 18 in Birmingham, U.K., her fastest time since the Canadian-record holder went a personal- and season-best 9:29.82 to open her outdoor campaign in May at Shanghai. On Aug. 10, the Moncton, N.B., native and 2019 Canadian champion set a Pan Am-record time of 9:41.45 for the win in Peru.

WATCH | Geneviève Lalonde runs to steeplechase Pan Am gold:

Genevieve Lalonde won the gold medal in the women's 3,000-metre steeplechase, setting a Pan American Games record in the process. 0:29

Mike Mason, men's high jump (12:45 p.m.): The 32-year-old from Nanoose Bay, B.C., squeezed into this Diamond League Final with his first victory of the season on the pro circuit. Mason cleared 2.28 metres for his highest leap since opening the outdoor campaign with a winning height of 2.31 on April 5 in California. Mason placed fifth and seventh, respectively, the past two years at the Diamond League Final.

WATCH | Mike Mason builds off success at nationals, Pan Am Games:

Canada's Michael Mason finishes 1st with a jump of 2.28. 0:46
Brandon McBride, men's 800 (2:13 p.m.): The Canadian-record holder prepared for his first Diamond League Final with a season-best performance of one minute 43.78 seconds on Saturday in Paris. McBride, from Windsor, Ont., missed the 2018 Diamond League Final when Brit Jake Wightman grabbed the eighth and final qualifying spot after the four-time Canadian champion faded down the stretch at the Müller Grand Prix in Birmingham, U.K.

WATCH | Brandon McBride runs to 800m victory:

Canada's Brandon McBride finishes 1st with a season's best time of 1:43.78. 3:21

About the Author

Doug Harrison has covered the professional and amateur scene as a senior writer for CBC Sports since 2003. Previously, the Burlington, Ont., native covered the NHL and other leagues for Faceoff.com. Follow the award-winning journalist @harrisoncbc

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