Gabriela DeBues-Stafford was flourishing on the track representing the University of Toronto and lowering her personal-best time by up to 10 seconds each season.
In 2017, she completed her outdoor campaign by running the 1,500 metres in four minutes 3.55 seconds on Aug. 27 in Berlin, Germany, nearly five seconds faster than her 4:08.51 semifinal time at the world championships in London three weeks earlier.
"I started to think, 'I can do this.' I wanted to be the first woman in Canada to break four minutes," DeBues-Stafford said this week.
Saturday marks the one-year anniversary of the 24-year-old's 3:59.59 performance and third-place finish at the Diamond League Final in Zurich.
"I want to do that again and I know I'll get there when the time is right and the world calms down a bit [from the COVID-19 pandemic]," DeBues-Stafford said. "There were a lot of pace changes in that race and I'm most proud of being able to handle that."
The front pack, led by 2016 indoor world champion and eventual winner Sifan Hassan of the Netherlands, went out fast on Aug. 29 at Letzigrund Stadium in a 61-second first lap, slowed to 66 seconds on the second lap before reaching nearly a stop on the third. DeBues-Stafford made her move with about 70 metres left and beat world record-holder Genzebe Dibaba to lower the national mark she set the previous month.
WATCH | Gabriela DeBues-Stafford makes Canadian history:
"I was focused on tidying up my stride on the first lap, sticking on [the front pack] and making sure people weren't cutting me off," she recalled. "When I felt the pace slow I had to focus on not letting people in my space but I felt sub-four wasn't going to happen.
"It was a pretty dramatic way to break four minutes for the first time," added DeBues-Stafford, seemingly still taken aback by the accomplishment.
On Oct. 5, DeBues-Stafford crossed the line sixth in 3:56.12 at worlds in Doha, Qatar, to complete a spectacular season that featured eight Canadian records and 11 personal bests.
DeBues-Stafford's 2019 Canadian records
- Jan. 4, Glasgow, 5,000 metres — 14:57.45
- Jan. 26, Boston, mile — 4:24.80
- July 20, London, 1,500 — 4:00.26
- Aug. 29, Zurich, 1,500 — 3:59.59
- Oct. 5, Doha, 1,500 — 3:56.12
- July 12, Monaco, mile — 4:17.87
- May 30, Stockholm, 5,000 — 14:51.59
- Sept. 6, Brussels, 5,000 — 14:44.12
"I went home after worlds to Toronto and had three weeks in Scotland with [husband] Rowan and then was back in South Africa [for altitude training]," said DeBues-Stafford, who has re-signed with Nike through the next Olympic cycle. "2019 was great but it was also exhausting. I didn't have time to take a break, reset and recharge."
WATCH | DeBues-Stafford runs 3:56.12 PB at Diamond League Final:
But the pandemic, which shut down sports in March and led to this year's Tokyo Olympics being postponed until next July, afforded the Toronto native a much-needed break, quality time with her and Rowan's family and a chance to move home from Scotland. Since August 2018, DeBues-Stafford had trained with coach Andy Young's world-class program that included British record-holder Laura Muir.
"[Rowan and I] spent a lot of time apart with me being on the road for training camps and racing and that was starting to wear on us," DeBues-Stafford said. "As much as we loved Scotland and living in Glasgow, it was very far away from home."
Besides a "training effort" racing in a 400 at Birchmount Stadium in Toronto on Aug. 2 and helping pace her younger sister Lucia in the 1,000, DeBues-Stafford hasn't competed since Feb. 8 when she set Canadian indoor marks in the 1,500 and women's mile at the 113th Millrose Games in New York City.
Joining Bowerman Track Club
"I didn't want to stress myself out by travelling and racing in the current situation," DeBues-Stafford said of the pandemic. "I needed the time to reset, re-focus and get into a new training program."
In September, she is hoping to obtain a work visa and move to Portland, Ore., where she will join renowned coach Jerry Schumacher and the Bowerman Track Club. Among her new teammates is Moh Ahmed, the Canadian record-holder in the men's outdoor 5,000 and 10,000.
DeBues-Stafford said she had other options on the table but chose Bowerman because of the success of the club, its engagement in the community and versatility in its training that allows athletes to train for longer distances while continuing to compete in their signature event.
"There is so much talent there and [the club] has had so much success," said DeBues-Stafford, who is focused on being a better race tactician leading up to the Tokyo Olympics. "Getting involved in the community is something I want to do more of so that will be a nice fit.
"Training with a new group will start the momentum [for 2021] and I'm feeling ready to work. I want to bring positive energy, my [strong] work ethic and help push the women there to be better, and obviously they'll do the same for me."