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Victoria Track Classic gathers together Paris hopefuls ahead of Olympics

Event goes Wednesday night at Centennial Stadium
American Christopher Royster competed at last year's Victoria Track Classic at Centennial Stadium. ARMANDO TURA, VICTORIA TRACK CLASSIC

The Victoria Track Classic has been a fixture on the national track and field agenda for 36 years. But every four years, in a Summer Olympics year, it takes on an extra measure of weight as a key pre-Games meet. Despite the jaded disillusionment the Games often engender in a cynical age, the Olympics remain a powerful draw for athletes and the public, and it gives tonight’s edition of the meet that extra edge.

“Athletes still want to put their best foot forward in an Olympic year,” said Victoria meet director Rowan DeBues-Stafford.

“That’s why you see a statistically significant bump in performance every four years. Athletes thrown the kitchen sink — everything they have — at it every four years and that is why you see so many heroic performances in this fourth year of the cycle.”

It should be no different Wednesday night, ahead of the 2024 Paris Olympics, with a star-loaded field assembled at Centennial Stadium for the elite portion of the meet beginning at 7 p.m., preceded by the youth, junior, school and club athletes competing at 6 p.m.

It’s a family affair for DeBues-Stafford with his wife, Victoria-based Gabriela DeBues-Stafford, racing the women’s 1,500 metres, the event in which she placed an impressive fifth in the delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympics after placing sixth at the 2019 world championships in Doha. Her sister, Lucia ­Stafford, will race the women’s 800 metres tonight in Victoria. Lucia was a semifinalist in the Tokyo Olympics and recently made 2024 Olympic standard for the 1,500 metres at a meet in Los Angeles. Both siblings look primed for Paris with Gabriela eyeing the Olympic 5,000 metres this time around.

“Away from my official ­function as meet director, and the obvious family connection, I’m excited about this meet purely as a track and field fan,” said Rowan DeBues-Stafford.

“Lucia will be going for a sub-two minutes [tonight] in the 800 metres. And not only will Gabriela be racing the 1,500 metres but she will act as the rabbit in the 800 metres to help lift the times of those athletes and Gabriela will even pace some of the preliminary youth races. That doesn’t happen very often.”

It is part of giving back in what Rowan DeBues-Stafford described as a “rejuvenating move for both of us” to Victoria.

Gabriela DeBues-Stafford was raised in Toronto and came to Victoria to live and train in 2022 after she and her coach and husband Rowan were based in Portland, Oregon.

“The density of Olympians, present and past in several sports, who live in Victoria makes for a diversity of training ideas and collision of thoughts and we are so blessed to have access to this wisdom here,” said Rowan DeBues-Stafford.

Tonight will be full circle for Gabriela DeBues-Stafford, who originally raced here in an Olympic year as well: “I first raced the Vic Track Classic back in 2016, before I had made my first Olympic team [for Rio], so I have some really fond memories with this event. This sport often sees its pro athletes flying all over the world for races, so I’m pumped to be able to compete at what is now my home track and to be able to sleep in my own bed the night before a race.”

It will also be special for sister Lucia, who said in a statement: “This is the home track for both my siblings [Gabriela and brother Nicholas Stafford, the latter who runs for the UVic Vikes] so it’s like a home meet in some ways. I’m excited to get back out here, surrounded by the Canadian track community, as I fine tune ahead of nationals and Paris.”

Events to be contested are the men’s 100 metres, women’s 100-metre hurdles and men’s and women’s 400, 800 and 1,500 metres, javelin, pole vault and discus.

The women’s discus will feature Rachel Andres and Agnes Esser, currently ranked No. 2 and No. 3 respectively in Canada. Duncan’s Esser, out of Frances Kelsey Secondary in Mill Bay and the three-time ­Canadian champion and three time all-America with the NCAA Big Ten University of Minnesota Golden Gophers, has just missed Olympic qualifying in the past and is looking to break through to Paris.

The Victoria Track Classic is sanctioned by World Athletics, with athletes able to gain qualifying points for the Paris Olympics. General admission is $15 with tickets at the door or online through the UVic Vikes athletic department website. Children 12-and-under are free.

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