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Gabriela DeBues-Stafford Is Increasing LGBTQ+ Visibility on the Biggest Stages

If you don't know her by name, you might recognize her hair.

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She was the athlete racing with a rainbow-colored pixie cut to a fifth-place finish in the Olympic 1,500-meter final in Tokyo this summer. The hair color, originally dyed for Pride Month in June, became DeBues-Stafford’s small way to subvert the Olympics’ Rule 50, which bans all forms of demonstration or protest at the Games.

“I wanted to have a visual marker of representation,” she told Women’s Running over the phone from her homebase in Portland, Oregon.

“It was a way of me saying something without worrying about the ramifications of Rule 50, which is the ban on protests, which is a silly rule. A lot of times with queer people, unless their partner is right there on the field of play, unless you know their backstory, it’s not necessarily visible… I was surprised how many people reached out to me and how many people it really resonated with. I think representation is really powerful.”

As a bisexual woman married to a man, DeBues-Stafford (who goes by G to friends and family) knows it’s easy for people to assume that she is heterosexual. That’s why she’s made a concerted effort to do things like dye her hair all the colors of the rainbow before competing on the sport’s biggest stage, and use her social media platform to shout-out the LGBTQ+ community.

“I think it’s important to increase the visibility in the sporting community of queer people,” she says. “That’s why I talk so much about it, because a lot of people would just assume that I’m straight and I think it’s important to talk about representation and make sport feel welcoming to the queer community. I’m a member of the community and I also am an ally because I’m not trans myself, so I try to amplify the experiences of trans people in sport, so my followers can be exposed to a more diverse array of life experiences because I feel like exposure is the first step… people need to diversify the content they consume and that’s a huge piece toward eliminating prejudices and in the end, oppression.”

The two-time Olympian’s profile is only growing after finishing in the top six of the 1,500 meters in two consecutive global championships.

Not that it’s been easy. In fact, this past year may have been the most challenging of her career.

In the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, DeBues-Stafford decided to leave her training group in Glasgow, Scotland, with Laura Muir (1,500m Olympic silver medalist in Tokyo) to join the Bowerman Track Club in Portland. Due to border closures, she was unable to secure a visa to move to the United States until September 2020, and in the meantime, she had a Graves’ Disease relapse. She had managed the autoimmune disorder since 2013, but tried to wean herself off the medication at the beginning of the pandemic.

Graves’ Disease causes hyperthyroidism, or an overactive thyroid. Symptoms can include weight loss, anxiety, insomnia, digestion problems, and increase in heart arrhythmias, all of which DeBues-Stafford says she suffered from.

“When your metabolism is overactive, you lose muscle first so you’re extremely weak,” she says. “Being in the weight room and doing core was really a struggle. I had no strength at all.”

By the time she finally moved to Portland in September of 2020, she was back on medication but once her thyroid was at a normal level, she had to get back in shape. She says it took until around February of 2021, after BTC’s first altitude camp, to feel fit again.

DeBues-Stafford says she has long suffered from general anxiety, and the nearly two-year layoff from racing messed with her mentality heading into the Olympic year.But it’s another thing altogether to get the mind right for competition.

“Sometimes with racing, if you stay away from it for too long, and you have a tendency toward race anxiety, it can feel like you take several steps backward in terms of your progress toward being less anxious,” she says of the long layoff from racing. “It was really hard for me to get back into it.”

“I definitely have a general pattern of anxiety that, when you’re in a race situation, becomes exacerbated. I’ve struggled with race anxiety, specifically, my whole life, and it definitely got worse after my mom died.”

When she was a teenager, DeBues-Stafford’s mother passed away after a two-year battle with leukemia. She cites therapy as an important resource to help her through that familial trauma as well as her general anxiety, which can be intensified by Graves’ Disease.

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“The biggest strategy I used in 2021 [was] learning to trust my body,” she says. “That was my mantra for the whole year. The trust in myself and my body, especially after my relapse from Graves, because sometimes your mind is the primary thing creating the anxiety, creating doubts. Learning to be more in myself and less in my head, so when I’m feeling tired, I check in—how does your body actually feel? And, usually, your body feels actually good and ready for the challenge, so I learned how to feel grounded in myself, which is helpful.”

Somehow, she was able to bottle up all those feelings and perform her best during the Olympic Games.

“The whole year, I was trying to conquer some inner demons and I really feel that things just came together perfectly at the Olympics,” she says. “I reached this level of focus and clarity that was really incredible and I just enjoyed every second of my Olympics experience.

“It is very overwhelming when you feel adrenaline. I think with the anxiety piece, it’s framing that—do you think about those symptoms as positive or negative? I feel like for a long time leading up to the Olympics, I felt really focused on getting a medal and I didn’t want to lose the opportunity to get a medal, so that was very much, to me, a threat kind of response, where you feel like you have something to lose. And then at some point very close to the Olympics, I flipped the narrative in my head of you have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Letting go of, ‘I might not get a medal,’ but I know that I’m going to run a race that I’m proud of.”

DeBues-Stafford had the unique opportunity to share the Tokyo Olympics experience with her younger sister, Lucia Stafford, who also represented Canada in the 1,500 meters. It was her first Olympic team. She set a personal best of 4:02.12 in the semi-finals, the fastest woman in history not to advance to the Olympic final—and G got to watch it from the finish line, right after her own semi-final.

In an Olympics without spectators, it was doubly special to share the moment with a family member.

“Her eyes were just lit up when she saw her time, 4:02, it was another massive PB for her,” she says. “It was fun to watch her run her best on the biggest stage of the year.”

Though Lucia (“Lu” to friends and family) didn’t make the final, she was able to be there for G. “How do you feel?” DeBues-Stafford remembers her sister asking her before the most important race of her life.

“I remember saying to Lucia, ‘I’m really, really nervous, but I know I’m going to run a race that I’m proud of and that’s good enough for me.’”

And in retrospect, DeBues-Stafford confirms that’s true. After a year of challenges, she won her first-round race at the Olympics, ran 3:58 twice in 48 hours, and finished fifth in the entire world.

The best part is, DeBues-Stafford is only 26, and there’s four more years of consecutive global championships to shoot for that medal.

“2021 was an incredibly tough year for a lot of reasons, so I’m excited to be a little more established, more settled, have less change going on, and see what I can do with a year of stability under my belt.”

This profile was first published in the Winter 2022 print issue of Women’s Running as part of “Women Who Lead: Power Women of 2022” which celebrates 15 women who are reshaping the running industry for the better. You can see the full list of honorees here.

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