Melissa Bishop-Nriagu relieved to hit 800m standard 3 months from Tokyo Olympics

·6 min read
Melissa Bishop-Nriagu of Eganville, Ont., achieved the 1:59.50 Olympic standard in the women's 800 metres on Sunday in California, clocking 1:59.04. She was 4th in the 2016 Olympic final in Rio. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters/File - image credit)
Melissa Bishop-Nriagu of Eganville, Ont., achieved the 1:59.50 Olympic standard in the women's 800 metres on Sunday in California, clocking 1:59.04. She was 4th in the 2016 Olympic final in Rio. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters/File - image credit)

Melissa Bishop-Nriagu awoke in her California hotel room Sunday, looked at the misty rain, low-lying cloud, 25 kilometre-per-hour wind, people wearing parkas and wondered how she was going to run under the Olympic qualifying standard in the evening. But she knew it was going to happen.

After a 30-minute delay when the starter's gun wouldn't sound, the middle-distance runner from Windsor, Ont., went out hard with five others in the women's 800 metres — including pacesetter and 2019 Pan Am 1,500 champion Nikki Hiltz — at about 7:30 PT at a Chula Vista high performance meet near San Diego.

Bishop-Nriagu positioned herself on Hiltz's backside when the latter entered the race at 200 metres and stayed there until she made a push and was running side-by-side with Hiltz, who dropped off at the 600-metre mark.

"It was a race where I knew I was going to let her do the work," Bishop-Nriagu told CBC Sports over the phone Monday morning from her hotel room. "I tried to stay on her as much as I could, and I did. With 200 to go, it was about focusing on finishing strong and getting to that line in under 1:59.50."

After the rain had stopped, the 32-year-old Bishop-Nriagu crossed in a winning time of 1:59.04 in a calm wind near dusk to qualify for her third Olympics this July in Tokyo after finishing fourth at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio.

"I woke up [Sunday] thinking it was going to happen. It was a great opportunity with a great [pacesetter] and I have a lot of confidence in the training that [coach] Trent [Stellingwerff] and I have been doing," she said. "I knew, given the race didn't have a lot of competitors, I had nothing to lose. I was allowed to put everything on the line with no expectation of placing in any position.

WATCH | Bishop-Nriagu runs 1:57.01 personal best, Canadian record in 2017:

"It's a relief to have it out of the way. With the new [Olympic qualification] points system, getting into races that are ranked high enough is tough." Track and field athletes can also qualify by being globally ranked a certain number, depending on the event.

It's a big step forward but there are still a lot of steps to take, and I have loftier goals, like winning an Olympic medal. — Canadian middle-distance runner Melissa Bishop-Nriagu

It was the 25th sub-two-minute outdoor performance of Bishop-Nriagu's career and first since Aug. 24, 2017 at the Diamond League Final in Zurich (1:58.30). She sat out the 2018 season to have her first child — daughter Corinne, with husband Osi Nriagu — and cut short her 2019 campaign after suffering a small Achilles tear and minor hamstring issue.

Recently, Bishop-Nriagu said her workouts indicated a breakthrough was near after running 2:02.51 and 2:04.18 in competition earlier this year. Pre-pandemic, she would be coming out of an altitude training camp about now in Flagstaff, Ariz., before events ramp up at the end of May or early June.

Thinking of 'Big Dawg'

"It's a big step forward but there are still a lot of steps to take, and I have loftier goals, like winning an Olympic medal," she said, "[Stellingwerff and I] have lots of work to do."

That sentiment, the 2015 world silver medallist noted, would have been echoed by Dennis Fairall, the runner's longtime coach who died last Nov. 6 of progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare degenerative brain disease. The man known as "Big Dawg" to his athletes was 67.

Bishop-Nriagu said she thought "immediately" about Fairall following Sunday's race.

"I talked to Dennis all day, actually," said the native of Eganville, Ont. "I wanted to think about what he would have told me prior to the race. We got one thing out of the way and we would both be relieved. He'd pat me on the back and say, 'Good job, and we're going to do everything we can to put ourselves in the best position to be ready in Tokyo.'"

Bishop-Nriagu remains close to Fairall's wife, Janet, and sent her a text message on Sunday before falling asleep at midnight. "I said, 'The Big Dawg and Gary were watching over me.'"

Gary Malloy, who was head coach of the University of Windsor's cross-country team and middle-distance coach for the school's track and field squad, died suddenly in May 2019.

Racing in Europe may not be worth risk

Bishop-Nriagu returns to the track this Sunday at the USATF Golden Games in Walnut, Calif., and will compete at a Sound Running meet May 15 in Los Angeles before flying home and returning to her regularly scheduled training program. Racing on the Diamond League professional circuit before the Olympics also remains a possibility.

"If there's a five-day quarantine some place in Europe and COVID cases are through the roof, it's not worth the risk," said Bishop-Nriagu, who moved from Windsor to train for three months in Victoria over the winter to escape rising coronavirus cases and lockdowns. "Getting in a race with competitors I may meet [in Tokyo] is the best-case scenario, but I have a family, a two-year-old. There are more scenarios than there used to be."

And speaking of the Olympics, Bishop-Nriagu suggested her Canadian teammates get vaccinated, if possible. She received one dose of Pfizer in California and will be fully vaccinated when she flies home.

With COVID-19 cases surging in Japan and reportedly fewer than two per cent of the population vaccinated, Bishop-Nriagu said the thought of sitting out the Olympics hasn't crossed her mind.

"As athletes, like so many other people, we have been pushed to the limits this year and last," she added. "But as Olympians and people training for the Olympics, these are once-in-four-years, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for so many of us. There are hours, hours and hours of work put into this.

"Canada will send us as safely as it can, and we'll be at the Games as safely as we can. I've seen the 'playbooks' from the [International Olympic Committee], Trent and I have talked at length about what things will look like and it's a matter of being prepared."

Other Canadian results on Sunday:

  • Sarah Mitton of Brooklyn, N.S. – 18.70 metres to win women's shot put.

  • Brittany Crew of Mississauga, Ont. – 18.04m in shot put.

  • Canadian Paralympian Nate Riech – 1:55.20 to win men's 800.

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