Canadian middle-distance runner Gabriela DeBues-Stafford has moved to Victoria to train, citing stress around the doping ban of her former Portland training partner Shelby Houlihan and Houlihan’s continued presence around the team.
DeBues-Stafford, who was fifth in the 1,500 metres at the Tokyo Olympics and fourth in the 3,000 at the recent world indoor championships, trained with the Bowerman Track Club in Portland for the past two years.
But in a lengthy Instagram post, DeBues-Stafford said that the aftermath of Houlihan’s four-year doping ban in June hurt her preparation for the Olympics, and the fact Houlihan remains connected to the Bowerman club is too much of a distraction.
“Learning this news in mid-June almost derailed my Olympics,” DeBues-Stafford wrote. “It was a small miracle that I showed up in Tokyo in shape to run sub 4 twice in 48 hours and place 5th.”
DeBues-Stafford will train with Trent and Hilary Stellingwerff. Trent is a sport physiologist with the Canadian Sport Institute in Victoria, while Hilary, a two-time Olympian, is the head track and cross-country coach at the University of Victoria.
Houlihan holds the American record in the 5,000 and tested positive for the steroid nandrolone in December of 2020. Blaming tainted meat from a burrito, she appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), but the ban was upheld. She has appealed to the Swiss Federal Tribunal.
“My initial instinct when this happened (in June) was to leave,” DeBues-Stafford said in an email. “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 … (it was) 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.”
DeBues-Stafford said the “grey area” around Houlihan’s continued involvement with the club became too problematic.
“This absence of clarity surrounding the boundaries between BTC and a banned athlete is the critical reason for my departure,” she said. “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.”
She said she asked for “clear separation” from Houlihan in training, for example, working out in the weight room on different days than the American. Her suggestions were dismissed. DeBues-Stafford said it was also frustrating that Houlihan was spotted in Flagstaff, Ariz., while BTC was there for a training camp.
Her younger sister Lucia Stafford moved to Portland to train with the group this past fall.
“(But at that point) neither Lucia nor I were told that Shelby was going to keep training through her ban, nor the extent to which she was going to be around the team,” said DeBues-Stafford, who raced at the world indoors with her hair died blue and yellow in support of Ukraine. “There was no communication about this situation at all. Had I had a crystal ball to see what December, January, and beyond would be like, I would have left after Tokyo, and Lucia would never have joined.”
In Houlihan’s appeal to the CAS, her lawyers suggested she consumed boar meat from a food truck in Beaverton, Ore., to trigger the positive test. But the CAS ruled that particular truck doesn’t use boar meat. Also, the levels of nandrolone in her urine sample was two to three times higher than what would have been found from eating contaminated food. The CAS panel also ruled that the polygraph test and hair sample her team conducted weren’t sufficient to prove the doping wasn’t intentional.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 12, 2022.