Lucknow's Staehli reflects on bronze medal win at Pan Am Games, looks ahead to Olympics
BY SCOTT STEPHENSON
The little town of Lucknow is proud to have produced hockey legend Paul Henderson, whose 1972 goal against Soviet Russia is commemorated by a large mural visible to all those who pass through town. It just might be time for the town to invest in some paint and add another athlete to the scene - Julie-Anne Staehli.
The backroad runner turned professional racer has competed all over the world, and shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon. In fact, she’s just returned from the Pan American Games in Santiago, Chile, where she earned a bronze medal for her performance in the Women’s 5,000-metre race.
While she currently lives in Massachusetts, Staehli briefly returned to Lucknow for a post-Pan Am respite before returning stateside to resume running with her team for New Balance Boston. The versatile young athlete took a break from her break to have a wide-ranging chat with The Citizen about travelling the globe, reaching new personal bests, and how to find the balance between the act of running and the art of living.
The Pan Am Games is the chance for the Western Hemisphere’s most elite to compete. More than 6,500 athletes from 41 nations participated this year, many of whom had quotas to meet to qualify for the 2024 Olympics in Paris, France. Making it onto the Pan Am podium is an achievement Staehli didn’t make happen overnight. “It’s been 10 years of representing Canada. I’ve been on national teams, I guess, since 2014, so I think, over the years, I’ve been refining my approach before racing, and getting into the higher competitions.”
Staehli has put her best foot forward in races on every continent except Antarctica, but her trip to Chile stands out as a highlight amongst highlights. “It was really great. I’d gone down to Santiago about 10 days before, so it was this whole experience - our whole committee was there, with all of the sports as well, not just track and field…. Overall, going into the race, I was ranked maybe fifth, so I knew it was going to be a hard field, but being able to perform on the day and get a medal - that was just really cool!”
In 2021, when Staehli competed in the Tokyo Olympics, COVID protocols meant athletes were confined to nation-specific areas, with minimal space to practice. “Being at the Olympics during the pandemic was a very isolated experience… It was really neat to be in the Canada House - leading into the race you could feel the energy, but the stadium was empty, and 24 hours after the race, you were flown home. We really just saw Tokyo through the bus window… we had a holding camp outside of Tokyo, and then we travelled into the city sort of in waves. Being in Santiago, and getting to be among other athletes - I think that really shaped the whole championship.”
There may have been silence in the stands during the Tokyo Games, but back home, people were showing their support in myriad ways - decking out their homes and businesses with banners, buttons, t-shirts and other creative works of art. More than a few pool noodles and hula hoops were transformed into the iconic Olympic rings, and anybody driving down Hwy. 86 towards Wingham was greeted by a madcap metal figure holding up a sign emblazoned with the same simple slogan found all over Ontario’s West Coast that summer: “Go Julie-Anne!” Having one of our own citizens compete at the planetary level filled Lucknow with an electric energy. Don’t be surprised if we see an uptick of enthusiasm for track amongst the local youths over the next few years - it only takes one person to inspire a whole new generation to get active.
Landing her spot with the New Balance Team has been a game changer for Staehli, one that allows her to reach new heights. “I joined Team New Balance Boston in 2021. Since then, it’s been this shift from college high performance to elite and now professional running. I thought I’d take running as far as I could, but I never thought about running professionally… it’s definitely been a unique experience. Representing a brand and having its support is really cool.”
She also feels like her sport is having a moment right now. “Track and field has become more popular, especially in European countries. Being online, being visible, and then obviously the branding and sponsorship opportunities play a huge role.” Staehli uses social media platforms like Instagram to invite fans into her unusual life through videos and photos - they can check out her training techniques, hear the songs she likes to run to, and see the places she gets to travel to. She is also sponsored by the Canadian company Heali Tape. “While I was injured in 2022, they sent me the product - it’s essentially kinesiology tape, but with magnesium menthol in it, similar to a topical cream that you would use for muscle soreness and aches. It just helps with the recovery.” To top off her roster of running-related extracurricular activities, she also started a charity called ReRun, which collects gently-used running shoes and gets them to people in need. It started out as a one-off idea, and has since spread to five cities across Canada, with hopes for further expansion.
Her plans for next year’s personal success are, of course, already locked in place. “Paris next summer. I’m giving myself the best shot to try and make another Olympic team. World Indoors is also next March in Glasgow, Scotland. That’s sort of a nice step when you come off winter training… then into summer it’s all sights set on the Olympics.”
Beyond feeling the spirit of competition and the satisfaction of achieving a personal goal or two, Staehli also took the time in Santiago to be inspired by her surroundings. “It was my second trip to South America, but my first trip to Chile - the whole country is sort of this mix of mountains and beaches and palm trees. It’s very eclectic…. It cooled down in the evening, so that was awesome and the crowd was so excited to have this huge championship. Santiago was pretty spectacular, to have these mountains behind the track and the setting sun lighting it up, that was pretty special.”
Staehli also felt honoured to race in such an iconic venue. The Julio Martínez National Stadium, or Estadio Nacional Julio Martínez Prádanos, is Chile’s largest stadium, and it has waited a long time to host these games. Built on donated farmland in 1938, the National Stadium has a long and storied history that mirrors the story of its homeland. It has been a great source of national pride, playing an important role in the evolution of South America’s sporting culture for decades. It has hosted many international competitions, like the final match of the World Cup in 1962, in which Brazil defeated Czechoslovakia. It has also seen times of national sorrow. In 1973, during Chile’s darkest hour, the stadium was converted into an internment camp following a coup d’état by dictator Augusto Pinochet. At that time, Santiago had already been chosen to host the 1975 Pan Am Games, but those plans were cancelled after Pinochet seized power. Another attempt at hosting in the 1980s was cancelled by Pinochet due to the national economic crisis. Under the direction of a democratically-elected government in 2008, the stadium was completely renovated, making it the most modern facility on the continent. Being chosen to host the 2023 Pan Am Games was a historic moment for Chile, and it was one that the Chilean athletes met with appropriate gusto, winning 79 medals this year, a national record.
The history of Chile and its grandest stadium are important to the story of the 2023 Pan Am Games, but everything fades into the background when the athletes are in their element - for those moments, there is only the game, the match, the race. Staehli doesn’t focus on winning, or beating an opponent. Her favourite racing memory is not one of earning a medal, but of pushing herself to a new level of personal success. “I would say my all-time favourite, in terms of the overall race experience, was probably Los Angeles. That’s where I broke the Olympic standard for the first time, in 2021. Anytime I go see that track there’s just good memories from there.”
Staehli’s pure passion for her chosen sport is evident when she explains her running philosophy. “It's the simplicity of it… chasing personal bests, knowing you can improve. You move around in distances, so there’s always something sort of new about it. I think just the act of having a set hour in your day, or however long you go, just to be within yourself, whether with a team or on your own. It’s nice just to have that time dedicated to be in your own mind. I think we live in such a fast-paced, busy world that it’s hard to get that sort of stillness. Even though I’m in motion, that is when I’m the most centred and grounded.”
She also believes that running must be a part of her life, not her entire life. She says her goal is to be, “Healthy, happy, and running fast. You’re always toeing the line between optimal health and optimal performance and trying to get the most out of yourself, but I think it’s always important to come back to the fact that nothing comes before your health.”
When asked who her running heroes were, she didn’t name the top runner in the world. She named Melissa Bishop, a Windsor-based Pan Am/World medalist, saying, “She’s a mom now. It’s cool to see someone who went through the Canadian system, going to university, then the Olympic world, and now having a family. That’s a well-roundedness I admire. And of course, I am always motivated by my teammates and other fellow Team Canada athletes.”
These thoughts are the things that make Staehli such an admirable and intriguing athlete - in addition to being at the top of her physical game, she also approaches each moment from an intellectual and emotional angle - something one could expect from a woman with a Master of Science in Sport Psychology. She is crafting a blueprint for success based not on winning the race, but on something deeper - and that attitude has brought her to this moment, on the brink of greatness. She displays an internal leadership that will take her as far as she wants to go, in whatever direction she chooses. And it is that rare quality, that grace, that makes Lucknow so proud of Julie-Anne Staehli, and makes her worthy of being added to the mural. Because if there’s a goal that everyone should remember, it’s this one - “healthy, happy, and running fast.”