Gabriela DeBues-Stafford shocked running fans on Sunday when she announced via Instagram that she was leaving the Bowerman Track Club (BTC), where she has been training for almost two years. The seven-time Canadian record-holder cites her former teammate Shelby Houlihan’s ban and the ensuing aftermath as the reason for her departure, and has returned to Canada to train with Trent Stellingwerff, Director of Performance Solutions/Applied Sport Research at the Canadian Sport Institute Pacific in Victoria, and his wife, two-time Olympian and head XC/track coach at the University of Victoria, Hilary Stellingwerff.
Houlihan, who holds the American record in the 5,000m, received a four-year ban in June 2021 after testing positive for the steroid nandrolone in December 2020. Houlihan appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), but the ban was upheld. She has maintained her innocence, and is now bringing her case in front of the Swiss Federal Tribunal in a final effort to clear her name.
DeBues-Stafford said there is general confusion around what an athlete who is serving a competition ban is allowed to do vis à vis training. Given the lack of clarity surrounding the rules, DeBues-Stafford says she has concerns about operating in what she refers to as “the grey area.”
She adds that while the BTC staff and Houlihan’s lawyers have spent a lot of time and energy clarifying what she can and cannot do during her period of ineligibility, none of the other athletes have been given access to this information. “This absence of this clarity surrounding the boundaries between BTC and a banned athlete is the critical reason for my departure,” says DeBues-Stafford. “I need to know 100 per cent, black and white, word for word, all codes and guidelines that might be relevant to me or anyone associated with me in a professional capacity in this sport.”
The Toronto native also spoke about how the news that one of her teammates had been suspended for doping affected her training leading to the Tokyo Olympics. “I was totally distracted,” she says. “My focus was gone, and I was unable to execute key workouts. I was bombing basic bread and butter workouts, being four to five seconds off the pace on 200m repeats.”
She says with the help of her husband, Rowan DeBues-Stafford, she was able to pull herself out of that funk, but describes her performance at the Olympics (she won her heat to advance to the semi-finals; placed third in the semi-final in a season’s best 3:58 to qualify for the final and in the final, she ended up in fifth in 3:58.93) as “a small miracle.” She also cited support from her teammates during such a challenging time as a key factor in her success, but for the sake of her mental health and physical performance, she feels it is time to move on.
“The lack of boundaries surrounding a banned athlete, my inability to enforce my own boundaries, the poor communication surrounding this process, and the disregard for the BTC athletes’ input were the main reasons for my departure,” she says.
During her time with BTC, DeBues-Stafford has had many of the best performances of her life. She ran in her first Olympic final in Tokyo, where she placed fifth, and set two Canadian indoor records (in the 3,000m and 5,000m).
DeBues-Stafford has already begun training with the Stellingwerffs, and says her main goal is to attempt the 1,500 and 5,000m double at the World Championships in Eugene and improve on her finish at the Olympics. She did not comment on whether her sister and fellow Olympian, Lucia Stafford, who only began training with the BTC in November, would also be leaving the group and joining her in Victoria.