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Photo credit: Peter Grinbergs

© Copyright – 2016 – Athletics Illustrated

Gabriela Stafford is one of Canada’s fastest middle-distance runners. She specialises in the 1500-metre event, which Canada is currently rich in. The country boasts competitive international-level athletes like Hilary Stellingwerff, Nicole Sifuentes, Kate Van Buskirk, Sheila Reid, and Sasha Gollish to name a few.

Canada will send up to three qualified athletes in this event to the Rio Olympic Games.

The standard that they need to accomplish by or before the Olympic Trials that are taking place in Edmonton in July is sub-4:07. Stafford’s personal best is currently 4:07.44; the difference is within the smallest in tactical moves.

The London, Ontario native is gearing up now for a competitive spring and summer of track racing to put herself in position to qualify for the games.

Like her father James, who was also a competitive distance runner, she attends the University of Toronto.

Personal bests:

800m – 2:03.91
1500m – 4:07.44
One Mile (1609m) – 4:32.8
One mile indoors – 4:29.07
3000m – 9:13.10
3000m indoors – 8:54.87

Note: See World Athletics profile for an update on her list of personal bests>>

Christopher Kelsall: What sports did you play growing in the Toronto area?

Gabriela Stafford: I used to compete in Irish dancing when I was younger, which some might not call a sport but I think it’s just as, if not more, physically demanding as any sport. Your legs burn like they do during a 400m race, but you have to smile and perform despite that! Other than dance, I wasn’t very good at any other sport besides running around! And I grew up near Yonge and Eglinton, but went to a dance studio in the Beaches and then switched to one in Brampton.

CK: Well Irish dance like ballet appears to develop great strength in the lower leg and ankle and foot areas. Did you have good speed and running coordination early on?

GS: Definitely! I didn’t really excel in the sprinting areas, but I fell in love with the 1500m very quickly. You really have to be a versatile runner to succeed in that event. You need to be aerobically strong, quick, and also a good tactician. Irish dancing definitely helped with my fitness in track starting out, in my first year of high school I only did the odd run and race, so the fitness I got from dance helped me qualify for Ontario Federation of School Athletics Associations Championships (OFSAA), which was overwhelmingly exciting at the time!

CK: Your parents were competitive runners. Were you inspired to run yourself by knowing of their careers?

GS: My mom actually wasn’t a competitive runner, but her brother and sister were both middle-distance runners at the University of Toronto and were teammates with my dad; that’s how my parents met! My mom was the coach of my elementary school cross-country team; so when I was old enough to join in grade four, I figured why not try it!

A lot of families belong to sports fandoms; track is ours! I grew up on stories of track athletes from my dad’s era. I did feel inspired to try it knowing that my dad had had a lot of success, going to the World XC Champs four times, but I don’t think I stayed in it because I thought good genes would make me successful; it took me four years to win my first race. But I loved how you just go out there and run as hard as you can for as long as you can, although that idea was also slightly terrifying for a 10-year-old to wrap their head around. But I understood early on that even though you may want to quit because the race hurts, you can always push yourself to go a little bit harder. And I think that’s why I stuck with it, because I loved how in running, the mind will always outlast the body.

I didn’t have that revelation when I was young of course. I didn’t understand why I continued to run even though just the idea of racing made me sick, but I kept running even though it scared me, even though I hated how much it hurt. Because I knew whenever I slowed down and lost the lead group in a race because I felt tired, I was giving in to the illusion that I was trying my best, and so I kept running because I wanted to learn how to be mentally tougher.

CK: Would you refer to yourself as mentally tough now?

GS: I’d say so. I’ve had to face a lot of “demons” (as our head coach Carl would put it) last year to get there, which was an incredibly difficult process to go through, but after that, I realized that I had nothing to be afraid of. I wouldn’t go as far to say that I am no longer afraid, but my fears have diminished substantially and no longer hold the same weight in my mind. And when you run without fear, that’s when you can really see what you’re capable of. Perspective is a good thing to have. It’s definitely an ongoing process; I’m certainly not perfect.

Being mentally tough is not something that’s unique to me as a runner though. Every runner is incredibly tough, and I think that the best runners all do a bit of soul-searching to get there.

CK: Do you enjoy cross-country as much as track?

GS: I have a very ambivalent relationship with cross-country. And I don’t mean indifferent; I love it, and I hate it. One of the fun things about XC that you don’t get in track is the team aspect, and you get every type of runners from the 800m to the 10km on the same start line. The unity across distances is neat. But boy does it hurt! Of course, so does the 1500m, but I have always loved track, it took time to learn to love cross-country.

CK: You have two siblings, Lucia who runs, and Nicholas who is just 10, yes?

GS: I have my sister Lucia (17-years-old), and my brother Nicholas (10-years-old) who loves to play soccer and has just started track with his elementary school. He tells us how his dream is to one day is be a track athlete.

CK: How many times a day do you hear how you look like Kristen Stewart?

GS: Many times! Not so much anymore, but when Twilight was popular I got it all the time! I wonder how often Kristen Stewart gets told that she looks like me? Ha-ha!

CK: Hilarious. How are you finding training and racing while attending the University of Toronto as compared to high school?

GS: I trained with the University of Toronto Track Club since I was in grade 10, so when I joined the varsity team, Terry Radchenko continued to coach me, and Ross Ristuccia (who coached my aunt as well) joined forces. It’s been a pretty fun journey with the program, starting out as a 5:09 (1500m) runner and transforming into someone running just off Olympic standard (4:07)!

The continuity by staying in Toronto is great. I didn’t need to adjust to a new training program, but now everything is just done at a much higher intensity than what I did in high school. And it goes without saying that the races I do now are a much higher quality!

CK: How would you describe Radchenko and Ristuccia’s coaching style?

GS: The best? Ha-ha! I kid mostly, but they really are the best, they make a great team those two. Person-focussed, smart, and efficient are words I would use to describe their coaching style. Everything in training is done for a reason, and they always keep in mind the big picture and don’t burn us out. The developmental aspect of their training philosophy is I think the biggest reason I’ve run personal bests every year. And they also take the time to get to know all of their athletes as individuals which really goes a long way. Terry is like a second dad to me, and Ross coached my aunt when she was my age so he is like a grandfather to me too!

CK: Speaking of Olympic standard, Canada is pretty rich with 1500m runners with the likes of Kate Van Buskirk, Hilary Stellingwerff, Sheila Reid, Nicole Sifuentes to name a few. What will it take for you to take the next step, to get to that level?

GS: It’s an honour to now be racing against some of my idols. I just have to keep doing what I’m doing, and stay healthy! I’ve been on a pretty steady improvement curve, which is very exciting; because I still have areas in my training that I can improve in. But to really get to that next level, getting into the big races, like the Diamond Leagues, is key.

CK: What do you need to improve in, training-wise?

GS: Strength work is probably the biggest area I continue to need to work on. It’s definitely been getting better, but it still needs some work. Continuing to work on my speed will help as well. I need to get that 800m further down. Experimenting with altitude also wouldn’t be a bad idea in the future.

CK: You mentioned the Diamond League. What about the National Track League (NTL). Will you be competing in any of those events?

GS: I’m actually not sure yet. Terry and I don’t have a definitive plan beyond May races in California (or at least I’m not aware of them!) I imagine I might race at some, but I can’t confirm at this time.

CK: Take me through the IAAF World Indoor Track and Field Championships race. Was it tactical?

GS: It always is! I had a really good start right off the gun and found myself in the lead, something that I did not anticipate. The pace was slow for the first 400m because I was trying to give up the lead, a move that I didn’t execute properly since I got boxed in once a surge was thrown in. Once I was boxed in, there was nothing I could really do to stop others from passing, so I went from first to almost last in around half a lap.

With three laps to go, I got out and just started chasing down runners and made up a lot of ground. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to get into the final (I was the first one out), but sometimes you learn more from not making the final than making it. I think if I made that final; it would have been mostly due to luck that an early mistake didn’t cost me.

When I do make a final, it will be due to good race execution (and probably a bit of luck). In the end, the lessons you take away from a race are what make you a more skilled runner. Immediately afterward I was obviously disappointed but I wasn’t too upset as I ran like I belonged there. Sure maybe I made one critical mistake in my execution, but I am learning not to get too bogged down in what I do wrong and instead appreciate the things I did well. Each time I step onto a World Championship stage I run with more maturity and feel more in control. And that makes me excited for what’s in store in the future!

CK: As long as you learn from your mistakes, right!

GS: Definitely. You shouldn’t shy away from taking risks! Sometimes they’re mistakes that you learn from and other times they’re breakthroughs.

CK: You have run well over 800m, 1500m, and 3,000m, especially the latter as a junior, but it appears that you have definitely settled on the 1500m going forward, yes?

GS: Yup! I find my home in the metric mile right now. Maybe in the future, I’ll have a crack at the 5,000m, but not any time soon.

CK: What are your immediate goals for this season?

GS: Rio 2016! I remember watching London 2012 and the thought that I could one day be an Olympian never even crossed my mind. Then as I had more success I thought that maybe Tokyo 2020 could be in the cards, but it’s pretty nuts how Rio materialized into a realistic goal!

CK: Will you be competing in the Payton Jordan Invitational?

GS: Yes, I’ll be opening at Payton Jordan and then have a great opportunity at Occidental College, but beyond that I am not sure. I’m sure Terry knows but I’m just focused on the immediate future.

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