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Gabriela Stafford, seen competing in the world championship in March.

Christian Petersen

Gabriela Stafford was 13 when her mom, Maria Luisa Gardner, died from leukemia.

"She was a really amazing person," says Stafford, a 20-year-old at the Olympics as part of Canada's track and field team. "She was a teacher at my school, the type of woman who touched the life of every person she met.

"She raised us well in the short time we had together."

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On the eve of Olympic trials in Edmonton last month, Stafford was overcome with emotion. It was partly the enormity of the occasion, and partly because she was about to run the most important race of her life the day after the eighth anniversary of her mother's death.

Gardner not only raised Gabriela, but had been her first cross-country coach as a fourth grader at Toronto French School. She ran with her daughter until she became too weak in the final few months of her two-year battle with cancer.

"Usually I am nervous but collected the day before I race," Stafford says. "This time, I was so nervous I was sick. I was overwhelmed. I had been thinking about the Olympics the whole year, and especially the trials.

"All I wanted to do was call my mom and talk to her."

Instead, Stafford called Terry Radchenko, the assistant cross-country coach of the University of Toronto Varsity Blues. Twenty-four hours later, she won the 1,500 metres at the Olympic trials, pulling away from Nicole Sifuentes and Hilary Stellingwerff.

She was ranked fourth in the country, behind both, entering the race. She was so nervous before the start that she threw up the spaghetti she ate for lunch.

"After winning, I was in a minor state of shock," Stafford says. "I beat two women I have looked up to and have been trying to run with for years. I never thought of myself as equal.

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"I think of myself as a spiritual person, and I feel my mom was watching and gave me a little push when I needed it in the race."

Soon to be a fourth-year psychology student at the University of Toronto, Stafford won the 1,500 metres last summer in South Korea at the World University Games. She was Canada's junior national champion in 3,000 metres the year before that. Nobody, including Stafford, expected she would be part of Canada's contingent in Rio de Janeiro.

She remembers watching the 1,500 finals at the 2012 Summer Games in London from her family's cottage. She was interested, but indifferent.

"I never thought I would be at the Olympics," she says. "I thought I would never be good enough. I was never even the best in my own city as I was growing up.

"I never thought I would be anything special."

She has become that and more, and perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise. Her dad, Jamie Stafford, chairman of the Department of Statistical Sciences at the University of Toronto, represented Canada as a cross-country runner at four International Association of Athletics Federations world championships. Her sister, Lucia, 17, won the national junior championship in the 1,500 metres in Edmonton that same day. Their stepmother, Leanne Shafir, is a cross-country champion in the masters division.

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Introduced by friends, Jamie and Leanne got together five years ago. She was a fellow runner and widow whose husband, Andrew Herzenberg, died in an avalanche in 2010 while mountain climbing in Alaska.

"I am a little choked up today," Jamie said minutes after Gabriela crossed the finish line at the Olympic trials. "It is a crazy day."

For a long time, he ran with his daughters too. Then about five years ago, he said, "They started kicking my ass."

After winning in Edmonton, Lucia participated at the junior world championships in Poland. Now, Gabriela is in Brazil.

Her personal-best time at 1,500 metres is 4 minutes 6.53 seconds, run in June at an event in the United States. That is not fast enough to crack the top 10 in the world rankings, and makes her a long shot to win a medal in Rio. Heats get under way on Friday.

No matter. She is undaunted.

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"I want to go and I want to be competitive, not just there for the ride," she says. "I don't have outrageous and unreasonable expectations, but I have a lot of confidence in my ability.

"It is realistic that I could make it out of my heat and get into the semi-finals. I am going to have to run each race like it's the last of my life."

She will be supported at the Rio Games by her family, which includes her younger stepsisters, Gabrielle and Talia. Their schedules don't often align, but when she can, Gabriela runs with her stepmother.

"I count my lucky stars that she and her daughters came into our life," she says. "It is quite rare that the dynamics of a merged family work out, but mine is awesome."

For both sides, there are sad milestones each year. Birthdays and Mother's Day and Father's Day come and go and it is impossible not to dwell on the death of a parent.

"One Mother's Day, I brought it up to Leanne," Gabriela says. "I told her, 'This isn't the life any of us thought we would have, but we are all so thankful and appreciate the fact that we have each other.'"

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