Eganville's Melissa Bishop draws strength from community, stays connected to roots
Wayne Scanlan/Postmedia Network: Olympian and Eganville native Melissa Bishop had a chance to visit her old high school Opeongo earlier this week while taking time out of her busy training schedule to come home to visit her parents Alison and Doug.
Here in the Valley, the season is turning at last.
Farm pastures are releasing their spring scent and the maple sap is running.
Of course, Melissa Bishop, Eganville’s own, runs most any season. Before heading to Flagstaff, Arizona next week for altitude training, Canada’s 800-metre darling stole home for a few days to see her parents, Alison and Doug. These precious visits are a needed break from the training grind in Windsor, Bishop’s athletic base, yet even while stopping by her old haunt, Opeongo High School on Monday, she was sizing up an afternoon run.
Bishop has recovered as much as she ever could from a devastating fourth-place finish at the Rio Olympics, losing a bronze finish in the closing metres of the 800m despite setting a Canadian record in 1:57.02.
That the three medallists were controversial winners – only allowed to race because the track federation (IAAF) was forced to suspend its hyperandrogenism guidelines for testosterone levels after a ruling by the Court of Arbitration for Sport in 2015 — added to the frustration across Canada. In the eyes of many, minus the gender factor, Bishop wins that Olympic race. Yet she continues to take the high road on the issue, refusing to publicly grumble, proving class outshines hardware.
The Olympic buildup, the letdown, are over and the summer season approaches. Bishop has already raced in February, in Ireland and the United States.
“Coming off that was difficult, there’s a hangover almost,” Bishop, 28, says of her second Olympic Games. “But I think I’m coming out of it now. We were in (Miramar) Florida last week for training camp, and just hitting that warm weather and getting into my range of fitness again is exciting to me.
“We’re on the horizon of a (competitive) season again.”
In a meeting room at energetic Opeongo High School, Bishop is surrounded by supporters – her mom and dad; track coach Dennis Brash, who coached and taught Melissa at Eganville District Public School; Opeongo principal Neil Farmer, and athletic director Janet Reiche-Schoenfeldt.
Brash, retired as a teacher but still a volunteer track coach here, arranged this session after seeing the Ottawa Citizen’s stories on youth athletics and specialization. If ever there was an athlete who played multiple sports it was Bishop.
Right up until Grade 12, Bishop was wrestling between hockey and track as a college pursuit. In the end, she chose track, which worked out just fine, if not according to plan. A U.S. scholarship bid ended with untimely injuries. Attending the University of Windsor, where she came under the guidance of coach Dennis Fairall, turned out to be a godsend.
In her youth, Bishop played everything – soccer, volleyball, hockey, track. This is typical in a rural community school like Opeongo, where the enrolment of 380 means all hands on deck to fill out sports teams.
“I was involved in anything I could be,” Bishop says. “I think it was more a social thing . . . the majority of my friends were all playing sports. I loved playing volleyball after school and going on the bus to track meets during the day.
“Those were the experiences I wanted out of high school.”
Melissa’s brother, Jonathan, was also in hockey, meaning the Bishop family car worked as hard as the household athletes. Bishop’s track passion had her car-pooling to Ottawa to train with the Ottawa Lions Track and Field Club three times a week.
She couldn’t help herself. In the third grade, she’d heard her soccer coach, Mike O’Grady, say she was so fast she was going to be an Olympian one day.
“That planted the seed,” Bishop says. Years later, after winning a silver provincial medal at OFSAA in Grade 9, Bishop told ex-Opeongo steeplechase champ Terry Burwell her goal was to be an Olympian. Her dad remembers thinking, “hmm, nice goal to have, but good luck with that one.”
This is why Bishop encourages the young girls who flock to her to have big dreams. “They can come true,” she says.
The ties run deep around Eganville and Opeongo High. Doug Bishop teaches automotive here and coaches track and hockey. Brash, who once devised a come-from-behind strategy to help Melissa beat a tough foe from Cobden in grade school, still lends his track expertise and has a daughter, Cindy, on staff. Opeongo always did punch above its weight at OFSAA, winning 59 medals over the years, despite often hearing the school pronounced “OpeNongo” on the PA system. Mug shots of OFSAA medallists proudly adorn the school corridor, just around the corner to a loving shrine in honour of Bishop, who continues to tap these remarkable roots. Her journey is their journey.
“There’s something to be said about living in a small community and going to a small school,” Bishop says. “There’s just so much more support for people in general, not just Olympians or people in sport. Everybody knows everybody, and it’s nice to see your friends and family and local people succeed.”
NATIONALS IN OTTAWA
Bishop’s supporters will get a rare chance to see the 2015 world silver medallist run live, in Ottawa, at the 2017 Canadian Track and Field Championships July 6-9.
“There’s going to be 30-some Olympians there, and medallists, too,” Bishop says. “(Andre) De Grasse. (Derek) Drouin. Damian (Warner). It’s going to be like a high-end meet.”
The one fans will most want to meet – Melissa Bishop.