Profile: Pioneer’s Leo Gabaron takes his opportunity and runs with it

Leo Gabaron has a lot to be proud of, thankful for and excited about – and all three are like a well-run relay team, perfectly in sync with one another heading to the finish line.

Leo, who graduated from Pioneer HS last month, is the first person in his entire family to be born in the US, graduate from an American high school and be accepted at an American university as an undergraduate. And we haven’t even left the starting blocks in the pride and accomplishment department.

Leo’s parents, Sabine and Ludovic Gabaron, moved to the United States 23 years ago when his mother came to Ann Arbor to teach French at U-M as an exchange lecturer. They have since raised two boys, Leo and Loui (a freshman at Pioneer), in Ann Arbor, and have “loved every step of the way,” says Sabine.

“We are the only ones from our family to be in the US,” she says. “We are so grateful for all the opportunities this city and country have given us.”

Getting opportunities is one thing – taking advantage of them with hard work, dedication and passion is a totally different thing. And Leo took advantage of his opportunity and “ran” with it, earning a spot on the track and field team at the University of Michigan.

But before we get to the stop watch, results and events, let’s line up some of what makes Leo Gabaron not only special, but unique. And we don’t need any hyperbole  –  just listen to what he has to say to understand what we’re talking about.

“I am not a phenomenal athlete who has broken every record, or who has won every race I have competed in,” he says. “I have failed much more than I have succeeded and I have not performed at times where I should have.

“One thing that I do have and take pride in is my dedication, determination and love for this sport, and specifically for hurdling. I started my career as a hurdler and track athlete in the fall of my freshman year. Since then I have trained continuously for four years, three times a week, all year long with my private coach. I have calculated that between meets, workouts on my own, practices with Pioneer, and practices with my private coach, I have spent about 1,000 hours a year running, hurdling, and training to become a better athlete.”

Leo was hoping to turn those roughly 3,500 hours of training into some record-breaking times and possibly even a scholarship to U-M. But even though the pandemic wiped out his chance to run his senior year he still remains passionate about the sport and even more committed to success.

“What I can say is that I love this sport and I will always be the first one on the track and the last to leave it,” he says.

Leo says the dream always was to cross the street and run for the Wolverines. It’s always been about Michigan.

“Since I was very young I have always adored the University of Michigan,” he says. “There is a spirit of family and community that I really haven’t seen elsewhere. The academics are really astounding and that has always been a huge factor for me. I’ve been to many meets and have had the chance to interact and make friends with the guys who are already on the team and the bond and tight knit group they have is just something really special. Go Blue.”

Leo, who had a 3.986 GPA at Pioneer, plans on majoring in economics (LSA), double minoring in Spanish and sports management and taking accounting classes through the Ross Business School. It’s going to be a busy time, but busy is in Leo’s DNA and he knows how to keep his schedule “on track.”

At Leo’s first track meet as a freshman, he qualified for the state meet with a time of 9.24 seconds in the 60-meter hurdles and it was game on. This was only three months after his first day of joining the track team.

As a freshman, he ran the 60m hurdles and the third leg of the 4×200 relay at the indoor state finals for Pioneer. The relay team finished fourth and Leo was the only freshman to finish top 16 in Michigan – just six months after starting to hurdle.
Two months into his outdoor season, Leo pulled out from competing due to a lumbar stress fracture caused by overworking.

At the AAU Junior Olympics held at Eastern Michigan, Leo ran the 400m hurdles and finished second in his heat and 30th overall for the 15-16 age group despite competing with an injured back.

During his second indoor season, Leo ended up with a new personal record of 8.42 seconds to again qualify for the state meet where he finished 12th overall. It was a difficult time for Leo, whose grandfather passed away during his sophomore year of high school.

“I started to really struggle the rest of that school year, academically and athletically,” he says. “There always seemed to be this wall that I had to fight to be able to accomplish what I wanted to, and to this day I still struggle with the fact that he is no longer with me. In part it has been a big motivator to help me move forward but it has also been something I’ve had to deal with especially at training.

“The two year anniversary of his passing fell on a practice day this past February, and my coach talked to me, and said what he had been saying the past couple of years that the track is my sanctuary. It’s a place where I push away all outside interferences and where for three hours I focus only on running and hurdling. This has really helped me in times of difficulty. It helps me to disconnect, breathe and relax. It allows me to feel at one with my environment and do the thing I love the most.”

Leo with his private track coach Johnson

Leo had a strong showing outdoors as a sophomore. He placed 11th overall in the 110m hurdles at the state finals – the youngest in the top 17. Then came the 300m hurdles where Leo placed 12th overall with a time of 39.96.

“At this point I should have started my summer season getting ready for AAU, but instead I ended up spending nine weeks in Grenoble, France as my mother had taken a position through the University of Michigan to teach a French summer abroad class,” Leo says. “This removed all possibility of me training during those three months. I realized with my junior year nearing I had to keep up some sort of training routine, so every day during that summer I went to the pool and worked my endurance and upper body strengthening and then at nights I would watch cardio and workout videos, for things I could do in the apartment we were staying in.”

During the indoor season, Leo won the majority of the 60m hurdle races and was a part of Pioneer’s 4x400m relay with the anchor leg of Nick Foster. When States came around, Leo was seeded fifth and ran a personal record and qualified for the Emerging Elite for Nationals – and that was in the prelims. In the semifinals, he ran a personal record again and dropped his qualifying time even further. He finished eighth overall.

Two weeks later, Leo went to New York City with his father for the New Balance Nationals Indoor, and ran the 60m hurdles where he placed 24th in the emerging elite section and 30th overall. “It was a great experience, absolutely fantastic and something I will always remember,” he says.

During the outdoor season, Leo won the 110m hurdles and took second in the 300m hurdles at Regionals. He ended up fifth for the 110 hurdles and fourth in the 300 at the state finals. He also ran on Pioneer’s 4×400 relay team, which placed 10th overall. The Pioneers took second as a team.

“That year I was nominated as one of the team captains for the following season (this year),” Leo says. “I was really honored and looking forward to taking on that leadership role.”

While training for AAU, Leo won the 110 hurdles at Districts and again at Regionals, after winning at several other competitions in Marshall and Detroit. He also placed second in the 400m hurdles. The Junior Olympics were in Greensboro, N.C. where Leo placed 20th overall in the 17-18 age group in the 400m hurdles, and placed top 25 overall in the 110m hurdles.

Leo with Pioneer Head Coach Sleeman

This past November, Leo began his last indoor season and was spending a lot more time with Pioneer focused on trying to qualify some relays for states. “As captain, I wanted to motivate the team to show up more during the off-season and try to get some more sprinter involvement in States since the majority of the time Pioneer sends mostly distance runners to bigger meets,” he said. “We ended up qualifying a sprint medley relay, a 4x200m relay and the 4x400m relay in addition to me going for the 60m hurdles.

“I had qualified for the New Balance Championships prior to states so I registered and prepared myself for nationals. I hoped until the last minute that I was going to run again in NYC and was devastated when they canceled, although I knew it was for the best.”

Despite the disappointment of not competing in March, Leo will forever look back at his four years running while in high school with pride, fulfillment and accomplishment.

“The biggest thing for me that I take away from all these races is that even when it got tough and when it hurt, and when I would come home with scars and bruises and cuts from the hurdles, I always got back up and continued pushing and I enjoyed it,” he says. “From the very first day I have taken pleasure in this sport. I feel better when I am on the track, running hurdles is part of my daily life and has defined me as a person.”

Leo says, as captain this year for Pioneer, he was looking forward to creating a new sense of identity. “I wanted to bring together the boys and form a true sprint unit,” he says. “There are a lot of younger athletes on that team and my goal was to help bring them together so that when the current seniors left, we would have a solid group to keep the torch going. There is a lot of potential in the sprinter group at Pioneer and I wanted to make sure we were not always relying on the distance runners to help us win. I truly think we could have sent three relays as well as three to four individuals to the state meet this year.

“I just wanted to leave my mark at the school I loved. Whether it was in indoor, outdoor, or summer season, I have always done what I could to bring a positive image to Pioneer High School. I am dedicated to my school. I am proud to be a Pioneer.”