The Best Sister in the World
Gabriela DeBues-Stafford and Lucia Stafford are the two fastest 1,500m runners in Canada this year. As the Tokyo Olympics approach, they reflect on their shared past and their desire to compete among the world’s best
Gabriela DeBues-Stafford and her sister, Lucia Stafford, have running in their bones. Their father, Jamie, was an accomplished runner, and so was their late mother, Maria Luisa. As they prepare to compete at the Tokyo Olympics together, their friend and sometime training partner Madeleine Kelly shows us what makes this family tick – and how the young women’s once-intense rivalry has blossomed into a mature sisterhood that trumps competition.
“When I started running, I didn’t win, and I hated that I was losing. But I didn’t hate losing enough to quit,” says Gabriela DeBues-Stafford. “What made matters worse was that my younger sister was immediately good at running, and growing up, I was never as fast as her. It took me until Grade 6 or 7 to see that I wasn’t totally horrible at the sport.” As it turns out, Gabriela is totally amazing at the sport, becoming a World Championships finalist, thanks to her unparalleled work ethic. Lucia Stafford, her younger sister, chased the bar that her big sister consistently raised. Both sisters are now poised to compete at the 2021 Olympics in the 1,500m.
Gabriela, 25, and Lucia, 22, were born three years apart (nearly to the day) in London, Ont., and raised in Toronto. They attended the same schools, all the way through university. They both speak English, French and Spanish f luently. They have matching tattoos on the inside of their left forearm, and neither has a full driver’s licence. Growing up, people mistook them for twins. They also happen to be two of Canada’s best middle-distance runners. The Stafford sisters share many similarities, but the things that bind them the most are their fierce love of family and their shared desire to compete at the highest level of the sport.
Gabriela remembers, at around age eight, telling her mother that she would like to be the best in the world at something. She announced her desire to win from a young age, but Lucia didn’t – she didn’t have to. All she had to do was try to keep up with her sister. Gabriela says that, when they were kids, Lucia could never be the last in line, even on a family outing: “If we were on a walk in the forest, Lucia would have to be the one at the front of the pack. She’s been a chronic one-stepper since she was a toddler.”
The sisters’ first competitive outlet was Irish dancing. “We started
at a studio near Riverdale Park in Toronto,” Lucia says. “As kids, we were very connected with our mother’s Spanish roots, but less so with our father’s Irish background, which was partly why we took up dancing.” The girls have a close relationship with their mother’s younger sister, Sara Gardner, who was once one of Canada’s best distance runners. After several years at the Riverdale studio, Lucia and Gabriela were looking for more competitive opportunities and switched to a studio in Brampton, a suburban city northwest of Toronto. “We started considering international competitions, and needed to move to a more advanced studio – because we’re competitive at everything we do,” says Lucia.
The sisters’ inclination toward competition came naturally, both their parents being strong athletes in their own right. Their father, Jamie Stafford (now the vice dean of arts and science at the University of Toronto), was a four-time Canadian national team member for cross-country. Their mother, Maria Luisa Gardner, was a high school Spanish teacher, who also came from a running family, and always ran and coached crosscountry in the schools where she taught. She was Gabriela’s first cross-country coach.
If it hadn’t been for running, Jamie and Maria Luisa might never have met. Jamie was on the University of Toronto cross-country team with Maria Luisa’s younger brother, John Anthony. “I met my wife’s brother when he was in first year,”
says Jamie, “because he was on the team. So I eventually met his sister. She did some running and was talented, as the entire Gardner family is. My girls got their competitiveness from both sides.
“When they were growing up, I didn’t encourage them to pursue running at all – they did that on their own,” Jamie says. “The Irish dancing was extremely aerobic, and I used to joke that I’d secretly been training them the entire time. But really, it was all their idea.” Gabriela heard about running through the family, and asked her father if they could run together, joining her school’s crosscountry team soon after. Lucia was also dragged on those early runs. “Honestly, it was boring and hard,” says Lucia. “I hated running, initially.” Jamie recalls that in the first race she entered, she won by a full minute. After winning, Lucia was hooked.
In summer 2008, after an illness of only a year, Maria Luisa passed away of leukemia. She was 42. “I remember my parents sitting us down when she was first diagnosed,” says Gabriela. “And they told us she was sick. Most people who have been diagnosed with this rare, chronic form of leukemia only survive a few weeks once it inevitably becomes acute.”
Lucia, who was only 10 at the time, says the details are foggy. “I’ve approached grief differently than my sister. Gabriela knows the details, whereas I’ve handled grief by trying not to think about it.” Gabriela, who was 13 at the time, says, “I don’t think my parents kept anything a secret from the kids, but because I was older, I knew what was going on.” Despite being more aware of her mother’s illness, Gabriela says she didn’t realize her mother was dying until a few days before it happened. “My grandmother and father started dropping hints, and I remember thinking, What the hell? What do you mean she might not make it?” Maria Luisa died a few weeks after being admitted to hospital. Their younger brother, Nicholas, was only three.
Gabriela and Lucia had moved to the new dance studio when their mother became ill, and after she died, the commute from Toronto to Brampton became difficult for their newly widowed father. Beyond the commute, the sisters were developing some qualms about the dance world. Gabriela felt she never really fit in. “There
“If we were on a walk in the forest, Lucia would have to be the one at the front of the pack. She’s been a chronic one-stepper since she was a toddler”
was a social element of dancing that I didn’t really get . I always felt like I fit in better at cross-country practice. There’s an objectivity about running that my sister and I were drawn to.” As Jamie and his daughters grew tired of many aspects of Irish dance, they decided to switch activities, and signed up for the University of Toronto Track Club ( uttc).
Terry Radchenko was the girls’ coach at uttc, and he still coaches Lucia. “The first time I saw Gabriela, she was in Grade 9 and had just run a 1,500m race,” says Radchenko. “I think she was fourth, in 5:09 or 5:10, which was good, but far from what the best high-school girls in the province were running. But she ran well that day, and you could tell she was a gamer – and very competitive. There was a reaction after finishing that showed it.”
Lucia, on the other hand, was obviously talented. Radchenko said, “I had heard that Lucia was winning everything she entered. She was in Grade 7 at the time. At that stage, Lucia was a phenom, and Gabriela was certainly good, but Lucia was the one making headlines.” Gabriela’s talent wasn’t obvious from the beginning, but she
“We started considering international competitions, and needed to move to a more advanced studio — because we’re competitive at everything we do”
quickly excelled. “Gabriela took to training extremely well,” says Radchenko. “She made massive progress between the fall of Grade 10 and the end of high school. At Grade 10 ofsaa cross-country, Gabriela was two minutes behind the leaders. By Grade 12, she beat all of them.”
Gabriela knew her younger sister was good – really good – and it frustrated her. “She was just as fast as me, but three years younger,” she says. “She raced against people my age and still won races. I found myself being very jealous. We would have fights when she would push the pace on runs, and I’d be thinking, God damn it, you’re younger and better than me, just let me lead this. Once, I got so frustrated I left her on the trail.” But over time, Gabriela found success, and the jealousy dissipated. “When I won my first ofsaa medal, things shifted. I felt successful on my own and was able to separate my accomplishments from hers. I’m sure part of the initial difficulty was also due to the fact that our mother had just died. The dynamic at home was shifting, and then at the track we were competing.”
Eventually, time and perspective healed things. They’ve come a
long way since their early competition days, and both women feel that while they’re still competitors, they are no longer competitive with each other outside of a race. “Every year we get older, I feel closer to my sister,” says Gabriela. Lucia agrees. “Having Gabriela in the sport gives me confidence,” she says. “I feel more comfortable when she’s on the track with me. Even when she’s been way out of my league, she’s my blood, so I feel like I can hang.”
Over time, Lucia’s mindset shifted several times. After being diagnosed with Graves’ disease (an autoimmune disorder that causes an overactive thyroid) and struggling to achieve consistent results in high school, she has come to love track for other reasons than those that used to drive her. “I used to be very driven by winning,” she says, “but as I’ve dealt with setbacks, I’m more driven by feeling in sync with my body. A good run feels like f lying – I live for that feeling. When it comes to my sister, if I didn’t hit the same times as her, by the same age, I used to feel like I had failed, but that has changed as well. I no longer have the mindset that I need to follow her same path – I’m not looking into the future anymore. But, for the record, I still feel like I can hang.” After nearly three years without an official 1,500m personal best, Lucia ran a 4:05.70 solo at York University in January – the second-fastest time ever run by a Canadian woman indoors. (Gabriela owns the fastest time, at 4:00.80.)
Gabriela made her first Olympic team in July 2016, two days after the ninth anniversary of her mother’s death. “I thought a lot about my mother that weekend,” she says. “At that time in my life, everything associated with her death was pretty raw. It still affects me. I know it’s just a day, but 13 years later, it still matters.”
That weekend, Lucia won the junior 1,500m and Gabriela won the senior race at the Canadian Track and Field Championships. It was an emotional day for the sisters, as well as for brother Nick and father Jamie. But it became a successful and happy weekend, and the whole Stafford crew was in Edmonton to enjoy it together.
Until 2018, the sisters were on nearly identical paths. Both were coached by Radchenko, and both attended the University of Toronto. But over time, Gabriela grew restless. “Throughout my university years, I felt like I needed to be with a nurturing coach, like Terry,” she says. “But as I was nearing a new level, I felt like I needed to be around women who were better than me. Personally, I also felt at peace with leaving my hometown, after five years at U of T.
“It felt important to stay with my family for a while,” she goes on. “My brother is 10 years younger than me, and I wanted to see him grow up. But over time, I felt like my family was doing better. My dad had re-partnered, and we’d moved out of my childhood home. We were getting used to the new normal.”
During her time at U of T, Gabriela signed a sponsorship deal with Brooks, made Team Canada for the 2016 Rio Olympics and the 2017 I AAF World Championships, and established herself as a top Canadian. She didn’t make it out of the first round in Rio, but, true to her younger self, she still had her sights set on becoming one of the best in the world.
In 2018, with her Brooks contract terminated and newly engaged to Rowan DeBues, who is a British citizen, Gabriela decided to move to Glasgow to train with Andy Young, coach to Olympic 1,500m finalist Laura Muir. Gabriela travelled there with a plan to return for the winter semester at U of T in January 2019 and to get married. Then the pair went back to the U.K. together.
Lucia understood her sister’s decision to leave. “Of course I missed her, but I knew I was in the right place for me,” she says. “Seeing her leave didn’t make me feel like I needed to go as well.” But watching Gabriela leave also taught Lucia about the big world of running. “She made a big change, and it helped me remember that my options are endless. I’d never really considered leaving until she did, but now, I know I could do anything. Also, seeing my sister have that level of success was motivating for me.”
Gabriela and Rowan came back to Toronto at the beginning of the pandemic. During their time in Glasgow, Gabriela became one of the best runners in the world, finishing sixth in the fastest world championship 1,500m final in history, and set seven Canadian records. At the time of writing, she is ranked fourth in the world for the 1,500m. The pair have since relocated to Portland, Ore., where Gabriela now trains with the Bowerman Track Club.
The sisters acknowledge their competitive nature – it would be hard not to. But each family member also believes there’s a big difference between rivalry and competition. “My sister and I have always been extremely competitive – I’ve tried to drop the shit out of her on many long runs!” says Gabriela. “But I’ve always been happy for her successes, and she for mine. I love my sister so, so much.”
Running is much more to the Stafford family than just their sport – it ’s in t he very fabric of t heir family. Gabriela st ill associates running with her mother, who was her f irst coach, and it has become her full-time job. For Lucia, running was a way to process her mother’s death, and continues to be the thing she’s most passionate about . For Jamie, it ’s a lifelong passion, and how he met his f irst wife. Nicholas is now a strong runner whose closest friends are his uttc teammates. For the family as a whole, running provides loving memories of childhood and is the glue that keeps them united, even when far apart .
Both sisters are likely to compete in Tokyo, and while this is a huge accomplishment, it’s not what keeps them coming back to the track – their love of the sport runs much deeper than their individual success. Both sisters are on track to stand among the best runners in the world, and they got there by, among other things like talent and hard work, being the best that they could for each other.
“She made a big change, and it helped me remember that my options are endless”