World championships silver medallist Melissa Bishop tells us about the people who helped her become the fastest Canadian 800m runner ever.
The picturesque Lake Dore in Ontario provided the perfect backdrop for Melissa Bishop's idyllic rural upbringing. Sport was always a central part of her life, and her second grade teacher was one of the first to recognise Bishop’s future potential, one day remarking that she ran “like a deer”. Compliment accepted.
It was later on, as a soccer-playing seventh grade student, that her future in athletics was first mooted. “My first soccer coach, who is now my optometrist, Mike O’Grady, was blown away by how I could beat all the boys running up and down the field. He told me I was going to be an Olympic runner,” she says. “That was the seed that planted in my head. I thought, 'okay, competing in the Olympics sounds good, I am going to be an Olympic runner'.”
With this thought fresh in her mind she was keen to join her local running club. The only trouble was her local running club, the Ottawa Lions, was 130 kilometres down the road. Her father, Doug, a schoolteacher, and mother, Alison, a hospital manager, with assistance from Bishop’s grandparents and in a car pool with some other athletes, uncomplainingly drove the TWO hours to training and two hours back THREE times a week for the next FOUR years.
“Looking back, it was such a huge commitment on my parents’ behalf,” adds Bishop of the regular 260-kilometre round trip to training. “At the time they both worked full-time, my brother was playing competitive hockey. It was no easy feat by any means.”
Yet the “huge commitment” was worth it as the Canadian says it was her days competing for Ottawa Lions when she “fell in love with the sport.”
Bishop started her life as a 200m/400m runner and enjoyed success competing in high school competition in her native province of Ontario. She was a handy 56-second 400m athlete when her then coach at the Ottawa Lions, Andrew Page, suggested she try running the 800m at a twilight meet. It proved an inspired move.
“Considering I’d never trained for the 800m, I was decent at it and it kind of went from there,” she says. “I developed into an 800m runner. I went to uni as an 800m runner and I am still mastering the event today. I love trying to figure out how I can get around two laps of the track as quickly as possible.”
It was during her time studying kinesiology at the University of Windsor in Ontario when she first came under the coaching wing of her long-time mentor, confidante and inspiration, Dennis Fairall.
Thriving in the team environment fostered at the university, everything started to “click” under Fairall’s training regime. She went on to win multiple CIS (Canadian Interuniversity Sport) Championships and Bishop insists her coach has played a huge part in her success.
“Dennis is probably the kindest, most patient man I have ever met,” says Bishop. “He is very easy-going with a huge experience and knowledge of track and field. I completely trust him with my athletics career. He has become a very good friend and he’s been a constant day-to-day support in my life for many years. He is highly respected for the work he has put in into to the track and field system in Canada and I am lucky to have him.”
The training partner
Thriving under the coaching of Fairall, our Canadian middle-distance heroine has also benefited from training with former University of Windsor athlete, Drew Patterson during the winter months.
“He’s been a huge help for me,” admits Bishop. “He’s someone there to talk to and it is nice to complain to someone about the training because he has been through the pain too!”
Growing up in the small town of Eganville (population of approx. 1300) she admits the local support has been overwhelming. When she qualified for the London 2012 Olympic the locals organised a run, walk, bike event, sold Team Melissa t-shirts and on the morning of her Olympic heat more than 1600 locals packed the town’s hockey’s arena to watch Bishop compete.
“Even if they don’t know me personally, I think people still want some sort of connection to the Olympic Games,” she adds. “It is so important to have this support system behind me back home.”
Her adopted home in Windsor, Ontario has been like her second home for the past eight years.
“I have developed a network of very key people that I really lean on to get through every week,” she adds.
Bishop had endured a difficult countdown to the 2015 summer season. She had missed around 11 weeks training through an abdominal tear and a sprained ankle, but had somehow bounced back to strike 800m gold at the Pan American Games gold in front of her adoring home fans in Toronto.
Then she moved on to the Beijing World Championships where she was totally inspired by a red-hot Canadian team, which went on to win a record-breaking eight medals. The first of them was surprisingly won by Ben Thorne in the 20km race walk and it was a inspirational moment for Bishop.
“When you see fellow Canadians succeed, it solidifies in you a belief that you want the same,” she says. “Ben is a quiet guy but he took so much pride in his medal. After he won bronze I thought, I want one of those.”
Six days later the 27-year-old – who had set a stunning national record of 1:57.52 in the semi-final – was good to her vow as she collected silver in the final just 0.09 down on gold medallist Marina Arzamasova of Belarus.
The other half
Melissa’s boyfriend has been an “absolute rock” of support through her athletic journey.
“On and off the track he’s been a constant for me to turn to,” she says. “He usually gets the wrath of a bad workout, but also sees the highs and joys of a positive workout or race.”
After winning silver in Beijing, Osi was the first person she wanted to share in her success.
“I just needed to get to him as soon as I could. Instead of a lap, I ran backwards (towards the 100m start) to find him a few rows up. He hugged me so tight and was cheering so loud. I know he was so proud and had experienced firsthand what I had been through prior to worlds. He never lets me doubt myself.”