Michael Houston

With seven Canadian records to her name, Gabriela DeBues-Stafford is one of the best North American middle distance runners in the world.

Over the past three years, a flash of bright hair has often been at the front of the pack in the women's 1500 metres on the Diamond League circuit and at major competitions. Since joining Andy Young's training group in Glasgow in 2018, she has gone from narrowly missing the final of the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games to becoming a medal contender at the World Athletics Championships 18 months later.

Indoors, she holds the national records in all distances from 1500m to 5,000m - with the exception of the rarely-ran two miles - as well as outdoor bests in the 1500m, the mile and the 5,000m.

DeBues-Stafford became one of the threats away from the dominant Kenyans alongside her training partners Olympic silver medallist Laura Muir and rising talent Jemma Reekie. She finished sixth at the 2019 World Championships in Doha, the same season that she broke the four-minute barrier over 1500m.

The COVID-19 pandemic put a stop to her time in Scotland and she travelled back to her home country, before officially departing the group in July 2020.

Gabriela DeBues-Stafford has represented Canada at two Olympic Games ©Getty Images
Gabriela DeBues-Stafford has represented Canada at two Olympic Games ©Getty Images

Uncertainty still surrounds her exit from what looked like a successful formula, but the Canadian moved onto one of the most prestigious training groups in the United States - Bowerman Track Club (BTC).

There she was under the wing of Jerry Schumacher, the former head coach at the University of Wisconsin, and the former protégé of Alberto Salazar.

Schumacher was expected to lead the Nike Oregon Project (NOP) after Salazar, but in 2009 - a year after the partnership began - the pair fell out.

Salazar went on to coach some of the greatest distance athletes of a generation including Britain's Sir Mo Farah and Oregonian Galen Rupp; but also showed the dark side of the revered NOP, which grew links to doping allegations as well as emotional and sexual misconduct during his tenure.

With that, the Nike Oregon Project ceased operations in 2019 after 18 years, making Schumacher the undisputed sheriff of American distance running with his foe's reputation in the mud.

Yet, DeBues-Stafford has already moved on after less than two years in Portland, relocating back to Canada and training in Victoria in British Columbia.

At the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, she finished fifth in the women's 1500m, going with the final break but was dropped by a quartet led home by Kenya's Faith Kipyegon and followed in by her former training partner Muir.

Gabriela DeBues-Stafford embraced Laura Muir after her former team mate won Olympic silver ©Getty Images
Gabriela DeBues-Stafford embraced Laura Muir after her former team mate won Olympic silver ©Getty Images

DeBues-Stafford was then 0.66sec off the time of Ethiopian Ejgayehu Taye, who took the bronze medal in the women's 3,000m at the 2022 World Indoor Athletics Championships. It showed a continuation of good form.

Her recent departure begs the question - why? 

That would be down to the presence of Shelby Houlihan, the American distance runner and the Canadian's former team mate, who is serving a four-year ban for testing positive for nandrolone. 

Blaming it on a burrito, Houlihan still proclaims her innocence, as does Schumacher who has stood by his athlete in statement and in principle. Houlihan is still able to train with the BTC runners, something that DeBues-Stafford was clearly uncomfortable about.

She had not been informed about the initial signs of an anti-doping violation and continued training with Houlihan until she finally found out, days before it was made public, in June 2021.

Schumacher was not transparent about the situation, nor allowed the athlete to train at a separate time from the banned runner.

Unfortunately, unethical coaching practices are still taking place today. 

Some of the clearest examples of this is sexual misconduct, something that disgraced Edinburgh coach John Lees received a lifetime ban for. 

One of his former athletes, Mhairi Maclennan, has been at the forefront of closing loopholes within UK Athletics' procedures, which could have allowed him to coach again after a suspension.

Maclennan - and Welsh athlete Kate Seary - have set up their own organisation the Kyniska Advocacy, which looks to improve policy for the well-being of women and girls in sport. 

Shelby Houlihan's involvement at BTC has been controversial in the athletics community ©Getty Images
Shelby Houlihan's involvement at BTC has been controversial in the athletics community ©Getty Images

Part of their campaigning includes safeguarding development in athletics, something that is a point of contention for sprints coach Rana Reider, who still faces sexual misconduct allegations too, while some of his athletes have been forced to cut ties at the risk of losing funding.

Then there are training practices that ruin athletes. For anyone in the athletics community "burning out" is still a prominent issue not taken seriously enough. This involves coaching a young athlete at a level far beyond how they should be at that age. For example, allowing a 13-year-old to run over 50 miles a week, leading to injuries and mental disappointment once an adult, unable to improve like others.

Then, concerns about weight management. Closer to home, a coach who is now unaffiliated from my club, often poked fun at his sprinting athletes if they were out of shape, ridiculing them for not being fitter. 

A prominent National Collegiate Athletic Association cross country coach, who will remain unnamed, was accused by a close contact of mine of controlling the women's team's weight. Unsurprisingly, one of Britain's top prospects in distance running is now blighted by injuries. That same coach forced his athletes to sever speaking ties with their coaches from back home.

For a long time it has felt as if athletes would put up with poor standards, only now to be invigorated by activism. 

Worth clarifying is that DeBues-Stafford does not suspect doping issues in BTC, but was concerned about how such information was kept hidden from athletes. Her younger sister and fellow Olympian Lucia Stafford will likely follow suit at the end of her contract in Portland. 

What can be done? Above all, better links between governing bodies and training groups and their athletes is a must. These already exist in some manner, but often at the detriment of an athlete's career. Protect the athletes, give them a democratic voice and do not be afraid to sanction those involved in unethical coaching, even if it leads to positive results.

Open secrets are unravelling more and more, as will these training groups unless changes are made.