MONTREAL — Every time Gabriela Debues-Stafford steps up to the starting line, she has a who’s who of Canadian women’s distance running cheering her on.
The 23-year-old from Toronto led wire-to-wire Sunday to win the women’s 1,500 metres at the Canadian track and field championships, just the latest highlight in a season bursting at the seams with them.
One mark after another, Debues-Stafford has rewritten the Canadian record book over the past few months. She’s broken five in all: the women’s outdoor mile, 1,500 and 5,000 metres, plus two indoor records.
They were some of the oldest records in track and field, held by some of Canada’s finest athletes in the sport: Lynn Kanuka-Williams, Leah Pells, and Courtney Babcock.
"I can only imagine when a record gets broken it’s tough because it’s something that you’re proud of and then to see it gone … but I think all these women have had them for a long time and they’ve told me that they’re so excited to just see," Debues-Stafford said.
"It’s exciting when records get broken because the sport keeps progressing and it’s so special to have the likes of Courtney Babcock, Leah Pells, Lynn Kanuka after each record reach out and say ‘Wow, you ran an amazing race, I’m so proud of you.’ That means so much. It’s really amazing to have these role models and icons in Canadian running being not only role models but mentors to you, and to say ‘You’ve got something here, you can be really good."’
Debues-Stafford pulled away over the final 200 metres to win in four minutes 9.09 seconds. William Paulson won the men’s 1,500.
Aaron Brown won the 200 metres for his second victory at the Canadian track and field championships. The 27-year-old from Toronto crossed in 20.03 seconds, two days after he edged Andre De Grasse by three thousandths of a second in the 100 metres.
Laya Buchanan won the women’s 200 in 23.25.
Debues-Stafford partly credits this season’s move to Glasgow for her consistently fast running.
"I was just ready for a change, I was ready to leave Toronto and when I had the opportunity to work with (coach) Andy Young and Laura Muir (the European champion in 2018), one of the best athletes in the world, you just don’t say no to an opportunity like that," she said. "I’ve learned so much about the sport there, worked harder than ever had in the past … I’m having a lot of fun in the sport."
Debues-Stafford also recently married Rowan Debues, a former Varsity Blues rugby player. They met in college.
"He’s such a huge track fan, he gets it, which is really nice," she said.
Two years after making her Olympic debut in Rio, finishing ninth in her heat in the 1,500 metres, Debues-Stafford believes she can make the final at the world championships, and then "mix it up with the big girls and see what I can do."
As for all her Canadian records, they might as well be written in pencil. She’s not done yet. How much lower can they go?
"I hope a lot lower," she said.
She also hopes her running inspires a generation of young women, just as Canada’s sorority of runners have done for her.
"I never thought I could make a Canadian Olympic team when I was younger, I never dreamed I would be a professional athlete," she said. "But here I am, one of the best in the Canadian history, so I just think if I can do it, anyone can do it if they work hard enough."
Brown, meanwhile, cruised to a far easier victory Sunday than Friday night’s nailbiting 100 metres.
"Mission complete," said Brown, who was the defending national champ at both distances. "I set out at the beginning of the season to get two golds and to come away with it feels great."
"It would be disingenuous to say I didn’t put more focus on the 100 because I knew Andre was in it and not in the 200," he said. "The big one was out of the way."
While Brown has raced the past few seasons in the shadow of De Grasse, a three-time Olympic medallist, he believes his recent performances are worthy of a share of the spotlight.
And if not?
"If I’m still in the shadows, that’s OK, I’m used to that," he said. "If I get a little more notoriety, that’s great, but I’m going to keep that mindset, stay even-keeled, stay humble, stay hungry and focused under the table so to speak.
"Even if I’m getting more recognition, I like to keep that chip on my shoulder mentality because that’s helped me in training when I need to push myself and need that extra edge."
Sage Watson won the women’s 400-metre hurdles in 56.34, while Gabriel Slythe Leveille won the men’s race in 51.58.
Evan Dunfee, who was fourth at the Rio Olympics, won the men’s 20-kilometre race walk by more than eight minutes. The 28-year-old from Richmond, B.C., used the race as a workout for the Pan American Games in Lima. He’ll be the defending champion in next Sunday’s race.
"We’re a week out from Pan Ams so we weren’t pushing too hard today, but the goal was to do 12K really solid on race pace, and then shut her down for a bit, and then ramp back up that last bit hard," Dunfee said.
Dunfee and sports physiologist Trent Stellingwerff also used the race to obtain crucial data on dealing with the heat at both the world championships, which open Sept. 28 in Doha, and next summer’s Tokyo Olympics.