Meet Melissa Bishop, the small town Canadian runner whose positive attitude and iron will has translated into a gold medal career.
By Anna Lee Boschetto
For just a small town girl, Melissa Bishop is unexpectedly good, if not great, if not poised to become, perhaps, the greatest of all-time. Bishop’s hometown of Eganville, a small eastern Ontario village that’s now part of a township with a population of less than 4,000, isn’t exactly a hotbed for elite athletes. In fact, when Bishop was growing up, there wasn’t even a track facility. Instead, her parents, grandparents and the families of other runners drove two hours to the nation’s capital so that she could train with the Ottawa Lions Track and Field Club. But that didn’t hinder Bishop’s ability or passion for running.
“I was lucky growing up, my parents were so supportive,” the 27-year-old Bishop says. “There was a whole community that supported me and I’m happy to be able to share this entire experience with them.”
Bishop is a mid-distance track athlete, specializing in the 800 m. She went to the Olympics in 2012 and this summer, she won gold at the 2015 Toronto PanAm games. She currently holds the national women’s record in the 800 m distance. “No matter what, you have to remember that you’ve earned a spot to be there,” she says about performing on the world’s biggest track stage. “That’s where you need to call on your mental and emotional side to keep you in the here and now.”
She didn’t always have an iron will. On a phone call from Bishop’s childhood home, her mom Alison recounts the scope of her daughter’s athletic ambitions. An avid athlete herself, Alison and her husband nurtured a sports mentality, one that focused more on having fun and spending time together as a family than winning Olympic medals. Not only were the training facilities for Olympians not so easily accessible in such a small community, but Alison and her husband were also encouraging (rather than pushy) parents. “Whatever people have a passion for, that’s inherent,” says Alison. And Bishop is proof that when you want it as badly as she did coupled with passion, hard work and drive, anything is possible.
Participating in team sports including soccer and hockey, Bishop wasn’t always the star athlete, but her parents and coaches would agree, she was the hardest working one. “She wasn’t the best player,” explains Alison, “but she had this internal drive, she put her best out there all the time.” As a parent Alison could see the difference between her own children, and the one point of difference was Bishop’s level of determination. She has always had what some would call true grit, and it’s the stuff that helped her get the job done for her team and eventually, helped her nail an Olympic standard faster than perhaps she had even anticipated.
And was she ever fast. Her first soccer coach noticed her speed. “He was bound and determined that I was going to be an Olympic runner,” Bishop says. By the time she was in grade four, Bishop was representing Canada at cross county events and eventually she joined the Ottawa Lions Track and Field Club, growing her passion for the sport. “I’ve always had the drive to win,” she says. “I think that I loved the competition, and I had a lot of success at an early age.”
While success may have come early, this past winter her career hit more than a few bumps in the road. So much so that after this spring, Bishop questioned her ability to participate in the PanAm Games. “I’d been injury free my entire career, so this year was really tough for me,” she says. After recovering from a sport hernia in January, then spraining her ankle before the opening race in May, she felt the pressure to hit the PanAm and World Championship standards. It was tight, but she did it. She credits, in large part, her intricate network of family and friends.
“They put me back together, there was no option to quit,” she says, adding that as with many athletes, bouncing back from an injury left her feeling fragile and doubtful. “I honestly didn’t know what would happen. I just feel so grateful to be back.”
Among the throngs that kept the faith for Team Melissa were her former University of Windsor teammate Heather Krupe and their Coach Dennis Fairall. According to Krupe, it’s Bishop’s ability to rally back from a less than optimal finishing time that may be her greatest strength. “She always took something positive away from a race,” shares Krupe, “and she always gave herself 30 minutes post race before moving onto the next.” She also trusts Coach Fairall’s training program, one that he says isn’t necessarily what she wants to work on. Fairall readily admits that he and the Olympic athlete don’t always see eye-to-eye, yet he admires her dedication and drive to improve despite their differences. Even with her level of skill and experience, Bishop can still go into a race nervous, yet wanting to have fun. As Krupe attests, Bishop is the first to focus on the positivity of the race experience, often telling her teammate to trust their training and enjoy the time to shine. No matter what you’re goal, whether you’re a weekend warrior or training in an elite field, Krupe says that Bishop’s ability to cheer on others to achieve their goals is what makes her such a positive and popular athlete.
Throughout our conversation, there’s no doubt that Alison is quite proud of her daughter. “Like any parent, you see a neat piece of your kid’s artwork, and think that it’s incredible, but this is just on a different level,” she says. A different level indeed, one that has taken Bishop onto the world stage, moving away from her home in Eganville and competing with (and defeating) some of the best athletes in the world.
“Now that she has been to the Olympics, for Melissa, it’s about believing that you’re equal and you can do this,” explains Alison. That means, even during a tough year, like the one that’s just past, her parents, family and supporters rallied around her, confident in her ability to hold her own on the track. Yet as proud a parent as she is, Alison says it’s most important that her daughter is proud of herself. And that’s something that Bishop seems to continue to learn: “I love running and still appreciate the opportunity to get out and do it,” she says. “It’s a job, but it’s also something I love.”
Anna Lee Boschetto is the managing editor of iRun. She interviewed Kathrine Switzer, Jeff Galloway and Dick Beardsley in the last issue of the magazine.