By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
Julie-Anne Staehli and her family hosted a community party at their Lucknow farm to celebrate Julie-Anne’s return home after running the 5,000 metre race for Team Canada in the oppressive heat during the Tokyo Olympics. Lucknow and area residents have been behind her the whole way.
“Julie-Anne you are gold in our hearts,” reads one sign in Dungannon and a Facebook page tracking Julie-Anne’s Olympic experience is full of photos revealing how proud Lucknow and surrounding Huron County was to see 27-year-old Julie Ann race against the best in the world.
“The heat was stacked. We had 25 women with runners able to run 14:14 in this race,” recalls Julie-Anne, talking about the race just days after returning home from Tokyo. “I talked to my coach and we knew at the very least we had to be top 10 to make that final because the top five runners would advance and then the next top five times. I ended up 17th. I was a ways off ... it was not my best race. Overall it was not my best performance but it was definitely the best I had on that day.”
The extreme heat, her inexperience, and not expecting it to be such a fast pace were all factors in Julie-Anne’s time which was 15:33. She had come into the race with a slew of personal bests including dipping under 15 minutes with a time of 14:57 in Portland, Oregon just months before the Olympics. This was a major accomplishment as Julie-Anne, who has been competing internationally for 10 years, had only broken the 16 minute barrier in 2019. The Olympic standard to make the Canadian team was 15:10.
“My Olympic race wasn’t the performance of the season, but the season as a whole was my best performance. Everything I had done to qualify made this the best year I have ever had and this one race will not take away all the work and everything I have done to get to that point,” says Julie-Anne. While her fans are just so proud she made it to the Olympics and don’t care what her final placing was, Julie-Anne is a competitor and admits she wanted to be IN the race.
She had a moment on the Tokyo track when she wavered. After the first kilometre, Julie-Anne realized this was going to be a very fast heat. “There were women who could slide into placing but for me it was going to have to be an all out and I was okay with that,” recalls Julie-Anne. When the lead pack started getting further away, she had a few thoughts that stood out. One was, “just get to that damn line.” The other was to keep doing her best because she was essentially racing her own race. Being in the top 10 was now out of reach but she trusted her body to perform and told herself that when she stepped off the track, she did not want to have any regrets.
Sitting on her parents’ deck at their Lucknow farm, Julie-Anne is tired but pleased with her success. There are no regrets. If anything, she is more determined to improve her times. “In my heart, I know what I am capable of and I left that track thinking, ‘I want another chance.’ You want to be the best in the world. You want to achieve that. And it seems lofty. But you have to give yourself permission to set big goals and when you get a taste of it, there is no cap to anything. People think the Olympics is the ultimate but once you get there, you see the next mountaintop and I think that is where I am at now. How far can I take this?”
This attitude is what has gotten Julie-Anne this far from her early days first at Brookside Public School, then F.E. Madill Highschool in Wingham where she got her first taste of winning at the OFFSA level. Her first-place finish in the steeplechase launched a varsity career at Queen’s University in Kingston where she connected with coach Steve Boyd who is still her coach today. Julie-Ann was a five-time all-Canadian athlete while in Queens, earning bronze at the NACAC Championships for the 3,000 metre steeplechase. From 2013 to 2015 she won a silver and two bronze in the 3000 metre steeplechase and in 2017, she competed at the World Cross Country Championships.
Switching from steeplechase and cross country to indoor distance racing was a good move for Julie-Anne. In 2020, she ran the second-fastest indoor 3,000 metre ever by a Canadian woman as she broke though the nine-minute mark for the first time. In February 2020, she lowered her personal best to 8:47. Qualifying for the Olympics was definitely on the horizon.
Then there was a pandemic and no more races for 2020. Fortunately, running doesn’t require much equipment so Julie-Anne took the time to run outside and did a few time trials. By December 2020, she felt she was as “fit as I would ever be” but she could not get into the United States to race and earn a qualifying time.
“I was starting to panic. I did not have any times from 2019 to rank me so I was banking on early 2021 performances to qualify,” remembers Julie-Anne.
Then in February, she was able to compete at the New Balance Grand Prix in New York where she earned a national record with a time of 9:22 in the 3,000 metre. A few weeks later, she ran a 5,000 metre race in 15:34 in Austin, Texas. She was getting faster!
Another lockdown brought Julie-Anne home to Lucknow from London, where she was earning her teaching degree from the University of Western Ontario. “It was a hard decision to come home but I needed to reset.” Plus, the sideroads were bare and a perfect training ground for Julie-Anne to keep the pace because time was running out to qualify.
It was now May and the Olympics were starting in July. Julie-Anne had to qualify soon. She lined up three 5,000 metre races on back to back weekends in the United States. The first one, in Kansas City, gave her a time of 15:24. “I was still a ways off the qualifying time. It was not enough.” The next weekend, in California at the Golden Gate USATF, she broke 15:10 (the Olympic standard) for the first time with a time of 15:02. “I was eight seconds under and thought, ‘wow, I have a real legit shot of making it!’”
Julie-Anne still had one more race to see what she could do so she travelled to Irvine, California and ran a 15:01. In Canada, there were now five women trying to earn the three spots on Team Canada to race the 5,000 metre. “I did not want to be the athlete left out,” says Julie-Anne. She decided to sign up for another race in Portland, Oregon where she knew other top American and Australian athletes were racing for their own Olympic goals. “In that race, I took the lead for the last 400 meters and I knew we were close to breaking 15 minutes so I went for it. I got passed in the last 100 metres for third place but I finished in 14:57. That clinched it. At that point I felt at peace. I had done everything I could do. I had run the Olympic standard three times and dipped under 15 minutes. I had run five, 5,000 metre races and PB’d with every performance.”
It was now June and she came back home to Lucknow again for her two-week quarantine. With 200 acres of which 50 acres was bush and trails, she was able to run outside and get workouts in. She had a month before Canada selected its athletic team and just two months prior to the Olympic semi-finals. Training mattered so she took advantage of being in a rural area with open, unlimited space and ran.
Then it was a matter of waiting. Julie-Anne had the second-fastest time for a Canadian woman in the 5,000 metre plus the highest points in the rating system. She was fairly sure she would make the team but she had to wait until July 3rd for confirmation. When Julie-Anne saw her name on the list for Team Canada (on Instagram!), it was official. “I was so emotional. When you see your name written down, it’s like all the build-up reaches a shout of ‘I did it!’”
So much happened in quick order after that. Julie-Anne joined the Athletics Canada team in Flagstaff, Arizona to train in high altitude to increase her endurance. She ate more, upped her iron intake, hydrated, worked with a sport psychologist and fit in one more race — a 1,500 metre — before the Olympics, earning another PB. It was a great confidence booster.
Mentally, she was ready. Long-distance racing is about managing and overcoming pain, says Julie-Anne. “You have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.” Working with her sports psychologist and learning from other athletes, she went into Tokyo knowing how to turn anxious thoughts into positive adrenaline so she could enjoy the process. Also, to minimize distractions from social media, noise and any negative comments.
Two weeks before the Olympics started, Julie-Anne travelled to Tokyo with the team to acclimatize to the hot, humid conditions in a holding camp outside of Gifu. The hotel and facilities were beautiful but movement was very restricted. Athletes were required to take shuttles to and from the 1.8 kilometre loop with Japanese guards close by to keep the public from coming in.
The Japanese she did encounter were the kindest, most gracious people she has ever met. “Everything was thought of and they do it with such a welcoming and thankful attitude.The culture is incredible.” Commuting, however, was the only time the team saw the countryside.
Once in the Athletes Village, Julie-Anne described it as being at University because everyone is young. What makes it surreal is all the body types, languages and cultures represented. “You feel like you are in this supernatural campus. There were countries I had never heard of. You come into the dining hall of a million different types of people but you share a common purpose of wanting to do the best at what you do. I think it was the coolest thing I have ever done.”
She would see Canada’s most-decorated medalist, Penny Oleksiac in the elevator or decathlon gold medalist Damian Warner on the tracks, an athlete she endorses as Canada’s flag bearer. “He embodies sportsmanship and being a decathlete, you could arguably say he is the best athlete to be able to do all the disciplines.”
Julie-Anne took it all in but a moment that really stands out occurred just before her race.
Talking to one of the six other athletes she shared a suite with, one o competitor told Julie-Anne to pause a moment when she entered the stadium to take it all in. So she did. “Walking into that stadium was emotional. It was like Times Square. The whole place was lit up. It was massive. And I was walking into potentially, the biggest race of my life. So I took a moment and that was the best thing … to be in that space.”
The other best thing was coming home. Julie-Anne admits weeks on the road had her longing for home. “I have slept in so many beds and been in so many airports but now I am home. I can let my hair down and not think about what is next.” Sleeping has been difficult because of the time difference but she had the month of August to adjust, to process and to celebrate!
Her parents, Mathew and Cathy Staehli, organized a large community celebration in the foundation of their barn that burned down in 2019. Now a gorgeous eating area and garden, the Staehlis have created something beautiful out of loss. They are still learning to cope with another loss that occurred in the same week as the barn fire —the death of Julie-Anne’s oldest brother, Dominic. Running, for Julie-Anne, became a survival and grieving mechanism. “Each of us had to hold onto something solid and consistent in our life, something that gave us pleasure. We will never be over it but we had to figure out a way to live with it. That whole year, well, it shifts your perspective to what is important in your life and what you will prioritize and how to be resilient and come out of it.” In fact, that encapsulates what running itself is about, says Julie-Anne. “You have injuries and setbacks but the person who is going to make it is the person who will overcome it.”
Community has always been a support to the Staehli family and turned celebratory in the weeks before the Olympics. The encouragement and excitement for Julie-Anne’s achievement was overwhelming, say Julie-Anne’s parents. They credit Chris Hackett and Cathy Gibson for creating a Facebook page called “JulieAnne’s Journey to the Tokyo Olympics” that has over 1,200 followers and showcased the displays and banners Huron County residents created to support their daughter.
Sitting down with Mathew and Cathy while Julie-Anne hunted up photos from her Olympic experience, the pair are clearly proud of their daughter’s achievement but also her determination. “To be able to do all the work that goes into it and the sacrifice and discipline…” says Cathy, as Mathew adds, “that is who she is, that is her nature.”
Cathy knows Julie-Anne is disappointed in her race. “It was not her best day,” but is even more proud of her daughter’s ability to accept it, not dwell on it and move forward. The ultra-humid conditions (described as running through a wet blanket) made it one of the hardest races she had ever run, believes Cathy.
“As her parents, what else could we want for our children but to do something they are passionate about. And even though she made it to the Olympics, she is still humble. She is still herself,” says Cathy.
This is important to Julie-Anne as well. She had a chance to meet some of Canada’s top athletes, such as the members of the men’s 100 metre relay. To chat with them is to learn that their ability to run fast is the least interesting thing about them. “I just love that,” she says. “The people you know and are closest to know all the other things you have to offer.”
Knowing her community was proud of her even though she didn’t make the final is so grounding, she says. “When I started into sport and won races and then made it to the Olympics, you come to this realization that no matter the times that you have run and no matter the performance, your worth as a person does not change. At the end of the day, the question is ‘are you a good person?’. I mean, just because you are a good athlete, doesn’t mean you are a good person but I hope that comes first. That has nothing to do with performance. What you have done is an extension of who you are. Your values, your character, how good of a friend are you, your family … that is invaluable.
“Performance is part of me and what I do but being from a small area you have this different type of grounding. When I came home, everyone was proud of me no matter what. I did not make the final but they don’t really care. They are just happy to see me. I feel fortunate to have this type of upbringing ... and it gave me perspective that you can be on the world stage but at the end of the day, this is what really matters.”
The month of August, spent with family and friends at her parents’ hobby farm with horses grazing in the pasture and ducks waddling across the yard allowed Julie-Anne to rest and reflect. Athletics will be her focus for the next three years but she also has her teaching degree to use in the future. Whatever she does, she has the full support of a family and community who, as the sign says, believe Julie-Anne is golden. ◊