By Kieran Heffernan
Like most potential Olympians, Eganville-born middle-distance runner Melissa Bishop-Nriagu had a hard time hearing the Tokyo 2020 Games were being postponed.
“When I first found out that we wouldn’t be able to go, I was pretty upset,” she said. But now Bishop-Nriagu, who specializes in the 800m, is realizing the usefulness of the extra year.
“Looking now, I think that the extra year can only benefit me,” added Bishop-Nriagu, whose first child, her daughter Corinne, was born in 2018.
“I’ve been trying to come back to the same level that I was at prior to having her. And so this year will really just be another building year for me and will only help me get stronger,” she said.
After Bishop-Nriagu resumed racing in 2019, she struggled to get back to her pre-pregnancy times. She ran her best-ever 800m in 2017, setting a Canadian record of 1:57:01. Her fastest time in 2019 was 2:01.10.
“Last year was really tough because that was the first year postpartum, and a woman’s body just changes so much after having a baby,” she explained. “I was really just trying to navigate my body through that and it just ended up being a lot of injuries.”
Those injuries, including a tear in her Achilles, led her to cut her 2019 season short after only five races.
Only recently has Bishop-Nriagu felt she’s reached where she was before her pregnancy.
“So far, we’ve had a really great indoor season, a really great base season and this summer we’re ready to go. Unfortunately we just don’t have any basis to really showcase our fitness,” she said.
In a normal Olympic season, like when she previously competed during 2012 and 2016, Bishop-Nriagu would run around 20 races over the year. The 31-year-old managed to get just four races into 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Canada hasn’t yet determined who they will be sending to Tokyo for the 800m. That would have normally been determined at the National Championships in July, where runners would need to make the Olympic standard time (1:59.50 for the 800m) and finish in the top 3.
Although COVID-19 has delayed Bishop-Nriagu’s opportunity to qualify, it hasn’t had too big of a toll on her training.
“Things have been modified, but I think I’m lucky in the fact that I don’t need facilities,” she said. “I don’t need a pool, I don’t need pole vault poles, I don’t need a mat, I don’t need a runway. The distance that I’m in, I can do a lot of my work on the road.”
She and her husband had also just finished installing a gym in their basement before COVID-19 hit.
“Thankfully we got it all done just in time, because that would have been a huge part of my training that I would have been missing out on,” she said.
She hopes this summer’s training will allow her to just keep getting even better, without having to work up to a specific event like a world championship or the Olympics.
“I think I can just get stronger, faster, fitter. It allows me just to train really hard without having to peak in the summer,” she said. The lack of competitions can be difficult though, when an athlete’s only comparative metric is time.
“So much of what we do is based on racing. We’re so accustomed to being in a group or being on the track with competitors, and time-trialling on your own is hard because it’s just you against the clock.”
Home-based training while also looking after her young daughter has its own set of joys and challenges.
“It’s been really great in that I have been able to witness so much that I probably would have missed out on in these early years,” Bishop-Nraigu said. “She just turned two in July, and had COVID not hit then, I would not even be home for her birthday.”
However, her husband works full-time, meaning Bishop-Nraigu’s training needs to be built around his and her daughter’s schedules.
“We’ve had to be really flexible, and I think that’s the biggest thing that we’ve taken out of this, is that we can be flexible, it just takes some planning. I have to know what’s happening weeks in advance, essentially,” she said.
Overall, Bishop-Nraigu reflected on the positive impact her daughter has had on her and her running.
“I can come home to her and she knows that I run, but she has no idea if it’s a good race or a bad race, or I did poorly in a workout. Those things used to really weigh on me before and I would dwell on them, and now I get to come home to her and you can completely leave your work at work, is how I feel really. And I’m fortunate to be able to be mother.”