By Kyle Merber
April 13, 2022
On Saturday, Gabriela DeBues-Stafford announced via Instagram that she has left the Bowerman Track Club. The decision by the two-time Olympian and seven-time Canadian national record holder came as a shock to fans, as DeBues-Stafford has run exceptionally well since joining the team in July of 2020. In her post, Gabriela cites the doping violation and subsequent four-year suspension of teammate Shelby Houlihan and its continued aftermath as the reason for her departure.
To learn more about the thought process behind the move, we reached out to DeBues-Stafford. The following interview was conducted via email and has been left in its entirety.
THE LAP COUNT: Given that Shelby’s doping violation became public last summer, what motivated the decision to leave now rather than after the Olympics or at the start of 2022?
Gabriela DeBues-Stafford: Honestly, my initial instinct when this happened (in June) was to leave. Reputation is very important to me. However, knowing everyone on the team and having an otherwise extremely positive experience at BTC, it was hard to walk away when I had invested so much. Invest literally, in terms of it being very expensive to move all our stuff out to Portland, find a place, buy a car and such, but also psychologically, moving to a new country for a second time in two years, and my husband putting his career on hold to move with me. We were highly invested in making this move stick. I think I settled on the decision to stay at BTC by acknowledging that so long as this scandal stays in the past and the group moves on, I could still be true to myself.
So why leave now? When Lucia made her decision to commit to BTC in the late summer and early fall, neither Lucia nor I were told that Shelby was going to keep training through her ban, nor the extent to which Shelby was going to be around the team. There was no communication about this situation at all.
As the fall progressed, my and the group’s exposure to Shelby’s plans grew as did our concerns. Conversations between the athletes and the staff were had, and I was so dissatisfied by the unwillingness to listen to the athlete’s input that I began the discussions of leaving the group then in December. In the last few days before training camp, however, I was talked out of it. By mid-February of that Flagstaff camp, however, it was clear that BTC would not be a sustainable environment for me to operate in.
Had I had a crystal ball to see what November, December, January, and beyond would be like at BTC, or not even a crystal ball but just all of the information surrounding Shelby’s plans and the knowledge that the athletes’ inputs and concerns surrounding those actions that affect the group would not be listened to, I would have left after Tokyo.
THE LAP COUNT: By all accounts your short time with the group was successful, maybe most notably was the range you displayed having run personal bests in the 800 (1:58) and 5000m (14:31). From a training perspective, what does the group do differently than everyone else that has led to so much success for seemingly everyone who wears the uniform?
Gabriela DeBues-Stafford: Different coaches skin the cat in slightly different ways but from what I hear of other groups and coaches around the world what BTC does isn’t crazy or super complicated. Build as big an aerobic base as possible through mileage and lots of tempo work, get up to altitude and start to load up on distance specific workouts, come down to sea level and smash it. Whether coaches dress up workouts with special names, do two tempos in a day, how much they cycle sea level to altitude or not, that can all change; but ultimately that’s the foundation for most top athletes right now.
I think what has made BTC special beyond that foundation is the athletes themselves plus Jerry’s own motivational capacity. BTC has a great concentration of talent that is able to push and pull each other along. It means taking tremendous young talents like Grant and giving them world medalist role-models like Evan and Moh to emulate and chase down. Take a super hungry high school phenom like Elise and one of the top NCAA talents of the past 5+ years in Karissa and have them learn from a consummate pro and multiple medalist in Courtney. If one athlete isn’t feeling it on the day, there’s three more who can push it. It was a special feedback loop to be able to witness and contribute to. Tie that together with Jerry’s motivational skills; he is a great motivator. In my opinion, this is his best coaching trait (that doesn’t get mentioned enough), he is fantastic at helping athletes build their own belief and confidence in their abilities.
THE LAP COUNT: Of all the potential options to work with various coaches or groups, what attracted you most to moving back to Canada to work with Trent and Hilary Stellingwerff?
Gabriela DeBues-Stafford: I was really impressed and heard great things about Trent and his adaptability in working with Melissa Bishop-Nriagu after she had Corinne (her child) and the passing of her old coach, Dennis. Plus, I have a ton of respect for Hilary having looked up to her as a kid growing up in the sport and then racing against her. They have a very comprehensive approach to the sport. As a scientist, Trent might be one of the best minds not just in track but across modern sports physiology; I think he’s approaching 200 published articles now and has been an advisor for just about any acronym you could scramble together (WA, IOC, FINA, to name a few). They’ve both known/worked with Jerry and BTC throughout the last twenty years so that understanding has helped keep the transition seamless.
Another key factor is resources. Athletics Canada has a training hub in Victoria, so in terms of an integrated support team – physios, nutrition advice, gym facilities, medical support; it’s all top class and right there. It’s the most comprehensive set up I’ve had in my whole career so far. Hilary is also the head coach of the University of Victoria track team, so I’m able to work out with some of their men’s team. When you’re a woman trying to break 3:55 in the 1500m, there’s only about four women in the world who can drag you all the way there, so working with a coach who also comes with a small army of athletes capable of hitting those splits is also a nice bonus on top.
THE LAP COUNT: Has it been tough dealing with some of the reservations by fans as a result of being associated with a club connected to Shelby? There have obviously been these all-time performances and there’s a population of fans who cast this cloud of doubt or suspicion. Did it ever feel like other athletes treated the group differently now because of it?
Gabriela DeBues-Stafford: Managing haters and doubters comes with the territory. As soon as I ran 3:56 in 2019 at Worlds, I had people giving me grief who just couldn’t believe I was capable of that, not realizing I was running 4:07 at 19, then at 20 making the Olympics and going head to head with women like Shannon Rowbury. It’s annoying, yes, but I know that generally those people are totally unfamiliar with my own story, or are cynical past a point of no return.
What does matter more to me though, is the respect of my fellow athletes, coaches, and the active pro track community. I definitely felt a shift in how some other athletes responded to me; sometimes it would just be things like feeling avoided in a meet hotel dining room, other times it would be a more explicit question like, “what’s the deal with your team?” or something like that. It has been tough feeling like I can’t be fully open with people on the circuit about the situation at BTC. To be clear, this shift wasn’t ideal, but it was manageable. That is not why I left – as I have said elsewhere, fundamentally I left due to the lack of clear boundaries and lack of communication within the club.
(On Tuesday night, Shelby Houlihan issued a statement to LetsRun following their story about the departure of DeBues-Stafford.)
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Photo by Johnny Zhang/@jzsnapz
After hanging up his spikes – but never his running shoes – Kyle pivoted to the media side of things, where he shares his enthusiasm, insights, and experiences with subscribers of The Lap Count newsletter, as well as viewers of CITIUS MAG live shows.