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How the Stafford sisters turned a wee sibling rivalry into two Olympic track careers

Sibling athletes who share a sport — particularly high achievers — often operate in lockstep in their early careers. Gabriela and Lucia Stafford were no different, at least at first.

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Things sometimes got chippy when Gabriela DeBues-Stafford and Lucia Stafford went on their long runs early in their careers. Lucia, the youngest by nearly three years, might’ve tried to race her older sister. Maybe a small argument would bubble up. It wasn’t routine, but at times, the sisters would be forced to run on opposite sides of the road.

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By the end of these runs, the Staffords — now Olympic teammates — always finished on the same sidewalk.

Now, the 1500-metre specialists will be running on the same rubber track in Tokyo.

Gabriela, 25, is gearing up for her second time at the Games. She donned a Canadian singlet at the 2016 Rio Olympics, where she finished 25th. She holds the Canadian record for fastest 1500-metre, mile and 5,000-metre, and recently became the first Canadian woman to break two minutes in the 800m, four minutes in the 1,500m, and 15 minutes in the 5,000m.

For Lucia, 22, Tokyo will be her first Olympics. She owns the Canadian U23 record over 1,000 metres and won the 2019 U Sports cross country championships, Canada’s top collegiate organizing body.

They’re also one of three Canadian sibling pairs heading to the Tokyo Games this year, including artistic swimmer Halle Pratt and her brother Cole also a swimmer, and Claire and Emma Wright, who are both on Canada’s water polo team.

While teammates spend plenty of time with each other, sibling athletes who share a sport — particularly high achievers — often operate in lockstep in their early careers. Gabriela and Lucia were no different to start, but instead harnessed their family’s roots in Irish dancing before touching the track.

The sport, hardly a traditional primary activity for kids growing up in Toronto, requires similar fitness used in middle distance track: Performances often last for two to three minutes and are powerful, sustained aerobic work, not a far cry from the energy systems used in a 1500-metre race.

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“My dad always joked that (Irish dancing) was him getting us ready for track,” said Lucia.

After competing in the sport for about 10 years, the two tiptoed into running, Gabriela taking the first step by going on runs with her father, Jamie, who ran cross country for Canada at four world championships. Wanting to spend time with the her sister and father, Lucia joined.

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While family time got both sets of feet in the door, competition officially threw them into the world of running. Gabriela started off with reasonably strong results early in high school. Lucia was winning races in grade seven. Then they met track coach Terry Radchenko, who took their training to a new level.

“With Gabriela, it really took the training effect for her full potential to be realized. Lucia was probably starting at a higher starting point,” Radchenko said. By grade 12, Gabriela had won gold at the Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations (OFSAA) cross country championships and was preparing to run at the University of Toronto.

From left to right: Gabriela DeBues-Stafford, Jamie Stafford, Lucia Stafford at the 2017 Ontario University Athletics indoor track and field championships.
From left to right: Gabriela DeBues-Stafford, Jamie Stafford, Lucia Stafford at the 2017 Ontario University Athletics indoor track and field championships. Photo by Supplied by Lucia Stafford

Gabriela took longer to nurture and translate her talent into results, Radchenko said, while running was second nature for Lucia early on. But between the sisters, their competitive sensibilities linked the two.

“You could see that competitiveness in them … that’s something I noticed right from the start,” Radchenko said.

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As sisters who’d sometimes train and race together, those instincts would sometimes show — but, as Lucia and Radchenko emphasized, it was always healthy.

“I think we’re competitive in a healthy way … we’re not pitted against each other,” Lucia said.

Another linking factor during their careers has been constantly managing Graves’ disease, an immune system disorder that the two were diagnosed with in close succession as teens. It specifically causes thyroid hormones to be overproduced, initiating a long list of symptoms including fatigue and weakness, making consistency a struggle to grab at during training. Gabriela was able to control it early, relapsing for briefly in the past year, but Lucia has had multiple since her diagnosis. While Lucia underwent treatment to control it last year, the most recent difficulty has been unlearning the assumption that a bad workout equated to a relapse.

“For so many years, whenever I had a bad workout it was usually because I was relapsing. My mind goes there every time,” she said, adding that while she and Gabriela have both dealt with Graves, the variety in experience has possibly been beneficial.

“It was interesting, too, because if we had an identical experience, that would be hard in terms of comparing ourselves,” said Lucia.

Their strength of relationship can be seen in how they’ve supported one another through grief.

When Gabriela was 13 and Lucia 10, their mother, Maria Luisa Gardner, passed away from Leukemia. Gabriela then took on a more prominent role in helping their father take care of her and their 15 year-old brother, Nicholas.

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“My sister kind of took on a much more motherly role in a sense, so she’s my big sister but in a lot of ways she feels very protective of me and my brother.” said Lucia.  “I love her to bits and pieces.”

Their relationship shows when they compete, something Lucia said can be rare among all siblings competing at the same high level.

“When we race together, I think it’s really fun and I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m going to chase my big sister!’ And for her it’s fun too. But there’s this part of her where she takes on my stress.”

The two have spent more time apart in recent years: Gabriela moved to Scotland in 2018 to train with British 1500-metre star Laura Muir and announced in July 2020 she’d be moving to train with the Bowerman Track Club in Oregon. Lucia has meanwhile stayed in Toronto and continued training with Radchenko.

As the two pack their bags for Tokyo, they’ll find themselves drawn back to each other like magnets again — back on the same side of the road.

You can watch the Stafford sisters race in the 1500-metre heats on Sunday, Aug. 1 starting at 8:35 p.m. EST/5:35 p.m. PST. The semi-finals take place on Wednesday, Aug. 4 at 6:00 a.m. EST/3:00 a.m. PST and the finals are slated for Friday, Aug. 6 at 8:50 a.m. EST/5:50 a.m. PST.

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