Canadian 800m runner Melissa Bishop at the IAAF World Championships, Beijing 2015
It is hard to fathom that earlier this year Melissa Bishop was reduced to tears on multiple occasions after a series of injuries and incidents conspired to derail her racing season.
But on Saturday night at the Bird’s Nest, the Canadian was crying tears of joy after claiming the 800m silver medal.
“There was a lot of crying,” the 27-year-old recalls of that particularly dark period. “I give credit to (coach) Dennis Fairall. He is a very patient man and such a wonderful man. It’s so special for the two of us. We came from a really low spot in January and worked really hard for this.
“I think everyone dreams of winning. I mean you come into these things prepared for best case but also for worst case scenarios. I knew, for sure, I wanted a spot in that final. But, as I worked my way through the rounds, it became more and more real that ‘yeah, you can get on this podium’. There was no doubt in my mind.”
First there had been a sports hernia in her pelvis that forced her to miss the entire indoor season. Then, while regaining fitness during a high altitude training camp in Flagstaff, she learned her cousin had been killed in a car crash. They had grown up together and she felt enormous loss.
Finally, as she raced to regain fitness and a World Championships qualifying time, she turned her ankle while warming up for the Payton Jordan Invitational in California. That cost her another two valuable weeks of training.
With Fairall at the helm they were forced to adapt their training programme because of the shortage of preparation time. They focused on an endurance programme without any weight training. It proved a wise decision but they went further.
They worked on replicating the back-to-back efforts required at championships. Bishop raced or ran a hard session one day then would go back on the track for another hard session the next morning. They repeated this several times through the build-up to the World Championships. En route, she won the Pan American Games title, beating US champion Alysia Montano.
More than a few were shocked when Bishop set a national record of 1:57.52 to win her semi-final in Beijing and shaved two seconds off her personal best. This was significant also because she handed Kenya’s reigning world champion Eunice Sum her first 800m defeat since Brussels a year ago. The time also ranked her second in the world behind the Kenyan.
After being relegated to the bronze medal position, the Kenyan praised her new rival.
“Yes I think she is a great athlete; I have been running with her before,” said Sum. “I am happy because it is sport and you cannot win every time. Sometimes when they beat you, next time you beat them. It’s sport. I hope to meet her again next time.”
All too often athletes have delivered a sublime performance in the qualifying rounds and then struggle in the final. But Bishop ran 1:58.12 for the silver medal, her second-fastest time ever.
Clearly her strength was an asset but so too was her tactical prowess. Each time she ran in the Bird’s Nest Stadium, she put herself near the front when it counted. And while her rivals tightened up in the final forty metres, she maintained form.
"I have to give credit to Dennis Fairall,” she said. “Every race we have run he has called it to a ‘T’. It’s all on Dennis. I am giving that one to Dennis. He tells me where to go and to stay patient.
“We got to learn how to go through these rounds. In 2012 and 2013 I was such an immature athlete in the sense that I really had no idea how to get through rounds. But you live and you learn and now I have got a silver medal around my neck.”
Bishop was born and raised in Eganville, Ontario a small community 130 kilometres from Ottawa. As a high school 400m runner she represented Canada at the 2005 IAAF World Youth Championships in Marrakech. After attending the University of Ottawa for a year she enrolled at the University of Windsor to study kinesiology. That was where she met Fairall.
Another important part of the equation is her manager, Chris Layne of Total Sports US, who incidentally represented another Canadian world 800m silver medallist, Gary Reed. It was Layne who negotiated a Nike contract which saw her film a TV commercial with Mo Farah last year.
Minutes after Bishop had crossed the finish line, Layne started receiving offers from several European meetings. She could have added to the US $40,000 prize money that accompanies the silver medal. But she decided to end her 2015 season on a positive note rather than chase money.
She flew back to Canada on Monday to unwind at her family’s cottage and attend a friend’s wedding.
“Presuming we have a healthier build up than last year, I think the sky is the limit,” she explains. “Dennis and I will sit down when we get home and really debrief about the year and likely come up with goals.
“It’s hard to think ahead to Rio so soon after my race here, I'm still trying to process it,” she added. “To build on this season and be really prepared for next year is something we will look forward to.”
Paul Gains for the IAAF