By Martin Cleary
Melissa Bishop-Nriagu would love to represent Canada at her fourth Olympics during the 2024 Summer Games in Paris.
But before she can even consider bringing that long-term goal into focus, she must deal with the present, which could give her a shot at returning to the track.
“I’m still a track and field runner,” Bishop-Nriagu told about 1,000 high school students Tuesday during the opening session of the OFSAA Virtual Student Forum.
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An upbeat Bishop-Nrigau appeared in a Zoom broadcast and spoke about her life as a runner, a mother and a former high school student-athlete before fielding questions from the students across the province.
“I had knee surgery in October for a meniscus tear and I need to repair it. Things are going well, but I will miss the (track) season this year. I will focus on my kids.”
The Tokyo Summer Olympics was Bishop-Nriagu’s last international race on July 30, 2021, when she finished fourth in her women’s 800-metre opening heat in two minutes, 2.11 seconds and didn’t qualify for the semi-final round.
A hamstring injury one week before her 800-metre preliminary race was too much of a challenge to allow her to run freely. She missed advancing to the semifinals by one place and was excluded from the top 24. She finished 28th overall, after a painful fourth-place result at the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics.
“I’d love to go to Paris 2024,” Bishop-Nriagu said enthusiastically, when asked about her competitive future. “I’m not sure my body can handle the training. I’m 34 and have two kids. I’ll leave it as an unknown.”
While Bishop-Nriagu is undergoing rehab physiotherapy on her knee, she indicated if she returns it may not be in the 800 metres.
In the past, the Eganville, ON., runner has tested herself over 1,500 metres and has a personal-best time of 4:04.42 from 2021.
Moving up as a runner wouldn’t be new for her as she was a sprinter during her three years at Opeongo High School, running the 100, 200 and 400 metres. She switched to the 800 metres, when she moved into university.
During her virtual presentation to the high school students, Bishop-Nriagu focused on four points that could give high school student-athletes good direction in their careers.
“It took me four years of high school and 12 years as a pro runner to figure it out. Winning isn’t normal. You expect to win. That’s normal. But there will only be one winner,” she said early in her open and entertaining talk.
“It dawned on me in Tokyo (2021 Summer Olympics) as I was limping around the Athletes’ Village. What I was experiencing was far more heartbreak than celebration.”
While each track and field event has one winner, she said athletes can feel like winners in other ways.
Bishop-Nriagu said running can be defined as “performing at your best, working as a team and communicating together well as a team.”
She also encouraged her listeners to follow their dreams and stick with their plans.
“You are in control of your own life. Don’t let someone sway you. Choose to follow your path,” Bishop-Nriagu continued.
When she was in Grade 12, she moved to Ottawa on her own for her final year of high school to improve her opportunities to develop as a track athlete. But since she switched schools, she was unable to run in the National Capital Secondary School Athletic Association meets because she had to sit out a year.
As it turned out, her track season with the Ottawa Lions Track and Field Club also was affected, but this time by an injury.
“I left my sports teams (at Opeongo) and my family and pursued my goal on my path. It was what I needed to be an Olympic athlete,” added Bishop-Nriagu, who felt like a winner at the end of that season because she learned to live on her own and stood by her decision to move away from home.
She also encouraged her high school audience to “enjoy your high school experience,” have fun and use it as a big building block in achieving long-term goals, which can take years.
“Be patient,” she added.
Bishop-Nriagu also talked about three C’s in her life – COVID, coaches and challenges.
When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in March, 2020, and the sporting world started to shut down, there was great uncertainty about the resumption of competitions.
“It threw a wrench into Olympic preparations,” Bishop-Nriagu said. “I watched the Olympics being postponed (one year). I didn’t see the purpose of training. It was so far into the future and I wasn’t sure it would happen.
“But I decided to push my training hard, regardless of when the (competition) dates were. I made choices and put energy into every day. Sometimes, it was best just to take a walk with my daughter (Corinne). I can only control the controllable.”
Bishop-Nriagu has had many inspiring coaches as she has participated in track, soccer, hockey and volleyball.
When she was eight years old, her soccer coach got her thinking about the Olympics.
“My first soccer coach planted the seed that I could be an Olympian,” she explained. “He said: ‘You run like a deer.’”
Dennis Fairall, who was her coach in Windsor before he passed away in November, 2020, was instrumental in her track development.
“He taught me to be humble and work hard,” she said.
Challenges have been a part of her life, but she has accepted them and talked to the members of her support team for guidance.
“It’s very hard when you’re faced with challenges, but that’s life,” Bishop-Nriagu said pointedly. “The majority of my challenges are around injuries. It’s hard as they take you away from your job.
“I leaned on my small team. The most important thing to remember is why you do it. Injuries often say it’s time to take a break. My body worked overtime and needed a break. My sports psych helped me stay positive by asking me to remember the joy and fun.”
Bishop-Nriagu’s most challenging season was in 2015. But it ended better than she could ever imagine.
She started the season with an injury and needed surgery for a sport hernia. Training was permitted, but her running was replaced by cycling and time in the swimming pool.
As the outdoor season was about to start in April, she faced another setback with a sprained ankle.
But three months later at the Pan Am Games in Toronto, Bishop-Nriagu rode the roar of the crowd to a gold medal in the women’s 800 metres in 1:59.62.
“Having this many people screaming at you and the adrenaline rush propelled me into a zone. I had this fire burning in my chest,” she recalled.
At her first world championship in Beijing, Bishop-Nriagu was an underdog, but emerged a medallist. She took silver in 1:58.12, after a sprint to the wire and a photo finish.
“I flew under the radar. I had never been on a world team. I went into worlds with some confidence because of my sports psych,” said Bishop-Nriagu, who was healthy and running like she was wearing ‘a bullet-proof vest.’
“I finished second and set a Canadian record. It (put) me onto the world stage and I became one of the best.”
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Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 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 email@example.com and on Twitter @martincleary.
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