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HIGH ACHIEVERS: Melissa Bishop-Nriagu’s coach at University of Windsor remembered as a legend

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Melissa Bishop of Canada celebrates after winning the women’s 800m final at the Toronto 2015 Pan American Games. Photo: Steve Kingsman

By Martin Cleary

The day after Melissa Bishop won the women’s 800 metres at the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto, she flew home to Windsor to share the excitement with her coach Dennis Fairall and her fans.

Once the cheering subsided and there was a state of calm, Bishop sought out Fairall for a special presentation. In a touching moment as great as her victory, Bishop extended her arms and put her gold medal around Fairall’s neck.

Windsor Star photographer Nick Brancaccio captured that significant second, exemplifying the true meaning of the athlete-coach relationship. For more than a decade, they worked together to hit the international high notes.

Fairall, who coached Bishop-Nriagu at the University of Windsor during his 30-year career as a Lancer and was a Team Canada coach with numerous international assignments, died Nov. 6. Nicknamed Big Dawg, he was 67.

For the past 5 years, Fairall confronted progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare degenerative brain disease. As a result, he was forced to step down in 2015 as the most successful athletics/cross-country coach in U Sports history.

The photo of Bishop sharing her Pan-Am gold with the humble Fairall is extremely powerful and should be used in a campaign to bring more attention and recognition to coaches during international medal ceremonies.

At major international track and field/cross-country meets, it’s the athletes who are called to the medal podium for their rewards. But why not the coaches, too? They deserve equal billing for their detailed work.

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Throughout their years, they worked as a team, devising training strategies, planning schedules and travelling to meets in hopes of moving ahead. Athletes and coaches work form a team and should be honored together.

In a sense, a precedent was set a few years ago by the International Paralympic Committee, when it decided to award medals to the guides of runners with visual impairments. Technically, the guide is not the coach, but is at that moment.

Fairall coached thousands of athletes during his incredible career, including Bishop and former elite Canadian marathon runner Peter Fonseca, the Ottawa-based MP for the GTA riding of Mississauga East-Cooksville.

“I miss you and love you Big Dawg,” Bishop, a two-time Olympian posted on her Twitter account with the image of a broken heart. “I have so much to say, but can’t seem to get it all out clearly yet . . . soon.”

“My heart is broken tonight and I am extremely saddened that we have lost such an amazing human being,” wrote Fonseca, a 1996 Olympian and 1992 New York City marathon bronze medallist. “We have lost a legend.”

Internationally, Fairall was Team Canada head coach at the 2005 Pan Am junior championships, the 1985, 1989 and 1993 Maccabi Games and the 1989 World University Games as well as a coaching staff member for three WUG in the 1990s.

As Lancers’ head coach (1990-2015), his teams captured 25 U Sports and 46 OUA track and field/cross-country titles. In 2016, Lancers’ fieldhouse was named after Fairall, who won 65 coach-of-the-year honours.

As an athlete, Fairall helped University of Western Mustangs win men’s 4×200-m relay gold at 1977 OUA indoor track and field champs. He founded the Tillsonburg Legion T.C. in 1974 and earned a 4×100-metre relay silver at the 1975 nationals.

Fairall’s talents have been well recognized as he was inducted into the Windsor/Essex Sports, University of Windsor Alumni Sports, Athletics Canada and Athletics Ontario halls of fame. He also won an Athletics Canada coach of the year award.

“His record of accomplishment put University of Windsor and the Lancers’ track and field/cross-country programs on the map, but that was not what made him special,” Windsor Lancers’ athletic director Mike Havey said in a statement.

“His coaching tree is wide and deep and that impact will continue to be felt for years.”

Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 47 years. The Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree “retired” from the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but has continued to write his High Achievers column for the Citizen/Sun.

When the pandemic struck, Martin created the “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at

Martin can be reached by e-mail at and on Twitter @martincleary.

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