Five years ago, Gabriela DeBues-Stafford was a wide-eyed student at the University of Toronto who found herself in her first elite-level race. That race just happened to be the 1500 meters at Canada’s national championships with a berth in the Olympics on the line.

Stafford recalled in an April 1 interview with the Ali on the Run Show that she knew what she was running into. The final featured past national champions and medalists on the world stage.

“I was really scared going into it because these women I had previously on a pedestal I had to now beat,” she said.

She ended up pulling away to her first national championship and the berth for the 2016 Summer Olympics. In the run up to the Rio Summer Olympics however, she hit the rookie wall and it showed in a ninth-place finish in her first-round heat.

“After that high of making the Olympics, I just totally crashed,” she lamented in that same interview. “I was just burnt out. Previous workouts where I could just be great and be smooth were just a struggle and I went to the Olympics a little bit burnt out.”

The experience showed how far she had to go, but also how good she could be. Since Rio, Debues-Stafford has built her own section of the Canadian record books with six national marks, multiple national championships, and becoming the first Canadian woman to crush the sub-4-minute barrier at 1,500 meters in a blazing final at the 2019 World Athletics World Championships.

In 2021, two early efforts as a new member of Oregon-based Bowerman Track Club have her pegged as a medal contender for Tokyo.

Oh by the way, check out the rainbow hair?

In a competitive field at the Texas Qualifier meet in Austin in February, she made her move in the final 300 meters, with dyed rocket-red hair trailing like a comet’s tail. The new ‘do represents a bold stroke in a trend of many since Rio.

The first of those was in 2017. Debues-Stafford came out a bisexual and queer, something that influences her growing voice in advocacy as an athlete now.

“I definitely relate to queer,” she stated on Ali on the Run. “I’m definitely not straight, that’s for sure. Growing up and experiencing homophobia, biphobia and internalizing a lot of that, I feel that personally I am invested in combating oppression.”

In 2018, she capped off a bold move from her college days. She married her husband Rowan, whom she met as he was helping her move into her university dorm as a freshman. That coincided with moving from Canada to Scotland to work with noted coach Andy Young, and training day-to-day with one of the best middle-distance runners in the world in 2018 European champ at 1500 meters Laura Muir.

The day-to-day competition, and greater elite experience, leading to a breakthrough race for the Canadian. At the 2019 women’s 1,500 final at the World Championships in Doha, Qatar, DeBues-Stafford would race in one of the fastest women’s 1500-meter final ever.

DeBues-Stafford (2nd from right behind eventual gold-medalist Sifan Hassan) is in the pack of a blistering 1,500-meter final at the World Athletics World Championships in 2019

“I really believed I had a chance at a medal, even 200 meters from the finish,” she told Canadian Running after the race. “But once I was into the homestretch, I knew I didn’t have it. The top three were too far gone. But then I saw the clock and couldn’t believe how fast the race was.”

Her time was a blistering 3:56.12 and broke her own Canadian record by three seconds. The effort netted a sixth-place finish in a heat that saw the championship meet record, the European record, and three other national records fall, including Shelby Houlihan lowering the American record.

Debues-Stafford left it all on the track in Doha in finishing sixth and breaking the Canadian national record by three seconds

It was that effort that would spur her to move back to North America in 2020 to join up with Bowerman Track Club. Like in Scotland, Debues-Stafford receives daily coaching from the one the best.

Now she’s under the wing of legendary American distance ace, and 2017 New York Marathon winner, Shalane Flanagan.

“It’s really awesome to have a coach who was also an elite runner herself to help guide you through your own process and journey,” Debues-Stafford noted in April.

In contrast to heading to the Olympics burnt-out in 2016, Debues-Stafford stated to CBC Sports at the start of the season that the process this time, “is going to be all about consistency and slowly building the intensity so I arrive fresh and ready to go,”

Based on her progression this season, her plans have her peaking to reach her goal — a medal in Tokyo.

“My head‘s at executing every day as best as I can,” she declared. “I’m going to be on that starting line in Tokyo and running my heart out for that medal.”

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