LANGLEY, BC. – Returning to Toronto’s Lakeshore, Lucia Stafford is enjoying her sport again.
Having grown up in the city, Stafford ran university track with the Toronto Varsity Blues, and until 2022, much of her career saw her pounding the pavement of the bustling streets of Canada’s largest city.
After graduating and competing at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in 2021, she left her familiar surroundings for Portland, Ore. and the Nike Bowerman Track Club, an elite group of athletes that train at the Nike Campus.
With a track surrounded by forest, world-class gyms and treatment facilities, it’s a runner’s paradise — but she stepped away from it, saying it “didn’t feel like home” and that she was wary of another group member serving a four-year ban for doping.
“When you’re at training camp all the time, it’s more structured and one-dimensional,” Stafford said. “Now, I can try new things and see what works and what doesn’t…“I’m doing this because I love it, and it should be fun, not scary.”
While at Bowerman, she snagged her first Canadian Championship title in 2022, winning the 1,500m in Langley, BC. Despite that, staying in Oregon wasn’t the move for her future.
On Sunday, a year later, she found herself in a familiar position, with a beaming smile and a gold medal hanging around her neck, having defended her Canadian title in the distance with a time of 4:09.52.
“I’m feeling great, that felt really in control, and I think I have a lot more saved up, and I had another gear or two I could get to there, so it’s nice to feel that in control the full time,” Stafford told 49 Sports after her race, again in Langley.
“I know I’m in sub 4:00 minute shape, so it’s just about finding that race.”
Despite leaving the highly-touted program, Stafford, 23, was faster — and that’s been the trend for her since leaving Oregon. She’s a more relaxed athlete than in the past, showcasing her maturity in the sport, her experiences and her work with sports psychologists to manage pre-race and training stress.
On Sunday, she paced herself in the women’s 1,500 before taking a final kick in the last 200 meters and pushing ahead of the competition to claim her second straight title, crossing the finish line with a joyous grin and wrapping herself in the Canadian flag before collecting her medal.
“A big part [of the relaxation] comes from joining Oregon and then leaving,” she said. “That whole experience and taking that leap of faith, seeing what the pros are doing and then taking a risk and finding out what’s best for me, it made the whole thing less scary.”
Although Toronto may not be as picturesque, and she’s often alongside other recreational runners, she’s maintained and improved her times while adding track sessions with her longtime coach Terry Radchenko, whom she began training with in Grade 8. At the same time, she runs alongside longtime friend Maddy Kelly, who was her teammate with the Varsity Blues during their U SPORTS careers.
Now, the stakes only rise for Stafford in the rest of the season and into next year as she prepares to test her poise at the Budapest 2023 World Athletics Championships in August before taking on the Paris 2024 Olympics nearly a year to the day of her second Canadian Championship.
“I used to get scared shitless before races, and I would be in tears in the call room,” she said.” I just learned that nothing is that serious, don’t take yourself so seriously; being that stressed is exhausting.”