Event: Women’s 800 m
Local Club: Ottawa Lions
By Martin Cleary
OLYMPIC BOUND: In case you missed it, Sunday, May 9, was Mother’s Day, Liberation Day and Connor McDavid’s day to reach 100 points for the Edmonton Oilers in the shortened NHL season.
Those were three solid reasons for being happy that day, but not for Melissa Bishop-Nriagu of Eganville, ON. The elite women’s 800-metre runner had better grounds for joy, although Mother’s Day definitely was important.
Seven days after achieving the Athletics Canada Olympic standard of 1:59.50 for the delayed 2021 Tokyo Summer Olympics with a run of 1:59.40 at a twilight meet in Chula Vista, California, she was chasing another goal.
“I woke up (Sunday, May 2) thinking it was going to happen (making the time standard),” Bishop-Nriagu told CBC. “It was a great opportunity with a great (pacesetter, American Nikki Hiltz).
“I have a lot of confidence in the training that (coach) Trent (Stellingwerff) and I have been doing. I had nothing to lose. I was allowed to put everything on the line with no expectation of placing in any position.”
That outcome became a perfect backdrop for her on May 9 at the Golden Games in Walnut, California. The competition would be tougher, which could drive a faster time, on her third and final West Coast mini-tour meet.
In the women’s A 800-metre race, Bishop-Nriagu had a tight battle with a pair of Great Britain runners – Jemma Reekie, 1:58.27, and Laura Muir, 1:58.46 – who were first and second, while she took third at 1:58.62.
But finishing third, thanks in part to race rabbit Rebecca Mehra of the United States, felt more like a weight-off-the-shoulders victory for Bishop-Nriagu, who was back racing seriously for her first season since 2017.
Bishop-Nriagu ran a season-best 1:58.62 on the Hilmer Lodge Stadium track, which filled her with joy and confidence to continue her preparations for a third Summer Olympic Games.
“Especially after that 1:58, the smile on her face told me everything,” Stellingwerff said in a telephone interview. “She took the lead on the backstretch and ran with poise with two of the best women.
“She didn’t win it, but she was right on their heels. She had a huge smile because she knew she was back racing with the best in the world. The talent doesn’t go away. It just needs to be polished.”
Stellingwerff agreed to coach Bishop-Nriagu in 2017, after her long-time Windsor coach Dennis Fairall stepped down because of progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare degenerative brain disease. He died Nov. 6, 2020 at 67.
After the 2015 world championship silver medallist placed fifth at the 2017 worlds, Bishop-Nriagu stepped off the track to marry Osi Nriagu in October and have their first child, Corinne, in July 2018.
Bishop-Nriagu was keen to qualify for the Canadian team to the 2019 world championships, but in four 800-metre races she couldn’t break 2:01. Her first pregnancy and returning to training brought about injuries.
“Corinne was an absolute blessing for Melissa as it made her more balanced and stable,” said Stellingwerff, a sport scientist with Athletics Canada who is researching elite female runners returning from pregnancy.
He explained that women have lower bone mineral density after delivering and certain hormones are released. The runner can also be sleep deprived and fatigued, which can affect training along with breastfeeding.
In her short, unproductive 2019 season, Bishop-Nriagu suffered a pelvic stress fracture. And then came the shutdown COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, but that might have been a good thing as it allowed her to rehab and recover.
“There’s a drastic increase for the risk of stress fractures and tendon pulls (after pregnancy),” he added. “I’ve seen it over and over and as long as women are patient, we’ve seen (many) come back faster and stronger.”
Bishop-Nriagu is a good case in point. After a rare blazing start to her season in early May, the Ottawa Lions Track and Field Club athlete pulled back a tad over her next four races, including matching the Olympic standard of 1:59:50 at the Canadian trials.
In her final race last Saturday before heading to a training camp in Gifu, Japan, Bishop-Nriagu boosted her confidence even more by winning the Sunset Tour 800 metres in Sacramento, California, in a season-best 1:58.36.
“She’s as strong, as fit and as fast as she has been in her entire career,” said Stellingwerff, who knows she’ll have to run faster and may have to break her four-year-old national record of 1:57.01 to find true success.
The top six women have run 1:56, including leader Athing Mu, an American 19-year-old who won the United States trials in 1:56.07. There are another seven runners at 1:57 before you find Bishop-Nriagu ranked at 16th.
The top runners will have three races – heats, semifinals and final – over five days.
“It’s not necessarily the fastest woman who will win the race, but who will be the fastest after multiple races,” Stellingwerff added.
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 48 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “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 OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @martincleary.