Melissa Bishop - The runner, her ailing coach and the distance they will go

Melissa Bishop won silver in the 800 at the 2015 worlds and recently lowered her Canadian record to 1:57.01.
Melissa Bishop won silver in the 800 at the 2015 worlds and recently lowered her Canadian record to 1:57.01.

When Melissa Bishop races the 800 metres at the world track and field championships, every strong, rhythmic step of her run will be set to the roaring soundtrack of 60,000-strong at London Olympic Stadium. But the voice in her head will be Dennis Fairall's. Her ailing track coach will watch the drama unfold in his home office back in Windsor, Ont., his wife Janet standing protectively behind him. Together, they'll scream at the computer until they're hoarse. Fairall is battling progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP), a rare degenerative brain disease that has no cure and is slowly stealing his mobility and speech.

Despite being separated by five time zones, Fairall, the coach lovingly known as Big Dawg, and Bishop, the finest 800metre runner Canada has ever produced, will be in sync. This will be the first major international meet the two have been apart, a long-distance relationship necessitated by Fairall's failing health, but a partnership that they make work.

Need proof? Bishop, who is the reigning world silver medallist, is running faster than ever, recording a time of one minute 57.01seconds two weeks ago in Monaco to eclipse her own Canadian record.

"People have some opinions about it, but this is him and I. This is our journey. This is Dennis and me," Bishop said.

"I've put absolute trust in him for the last10 years, and he's put his trust in me, and it's turned out really well. But yeah, people have asked me, 'Why not go somewhere else?' "

Her fiancé Osi Nriagu summed it up succinctly: "She runs fast and people stop asking."

The 64-year-old Fairall has won either Canadian university or Ontario conference coach of the year honours 65 times in track and field and cross-country for the Windsor Lancers. His teams have collected 25 national university titles.

Diagnosed with PSP in 2013, Fairall stepped down from his university job in the fall of 2015. The university recently renamed its indoor facility the Dennis Fairall Fieldhouse, and the indoor track bears his name in big block letters.

It's at the track where Fairall feels his best. "It's home," Janet said. "You can tell when he walks into the field house, it's almost like there's an aura around him. He feels like he's home."

Janet is part protector/part assistant coach there, clutching the workout she has typed out for her husband in her left hand, while her right hand never leaves Fairall's back, guarding against another fall.

Loss of balance is one of PSP's most perilous symptoms. It strikes with no notice. Fairall has broken seven bones so far.

"Every time it happens it's just like 'What if he doesn't recover from this one? '" Bishop said.

His most recent fall prompted Janet to take an early retirement from her job as a public school principal. Fairall had got up to check a text message on his phone — Janet telling him she'd be home soon — when he lost his balance and put his head through a wooden kitchen cupboard door.

Just a few days before the Canadian championships, where Bishop would cruise to a fourth national title, her workout was short and sharp — a 650-metre run, a short rest, then a150-metre run.

The temperature soared to 30 C under an azure sky. Bishop slathered herself in a thick layer of sunscreen while Fairall and Janet made their way to the 650-metre mark, Fairall covering the ground with his walker at a brisk clip.

Fairall blew his whistle to signal he was ready, and Bishop and training partner Corey Bellemore — a middle-distance runner who's better known as the world record-holder in the "beer mile" — were off. Bishop looked strong and after crossing the line, she briefly bent at the waist, hands on knees, while Fairall peered at his watch. "How was that?" asked an onlooker. "Good," Fairall hollered back with a grin.

"Two seconds faster than we were aiming for," Janet added.

At a practice two days earlier. Dennis and Janet were at the finish line to clock Bishop's split time, and then had to beat Bishop over to the 700metre mark to record her finish time. Janet put Dennis in his chair and "ran him" down the 100-metre straightaway while Bishop covered the 300 metres around.

"Jan gets in a workout as well," Fairall grinned. Added Janet: "I need a few more of those."

It's an unorthodox arrangement. But it's working. Familiarity and affection are the threads that hold the relationship between the three firm.

"It's why it works now, because we've been together for so long, we know how to communicate," Bishop said. "I almost know what he's going to say . . .and he can just tell by looking how I'm feeling . . . (And) Janet has been a huge help in all of this."

Bishop and Fairall make a charming pair, she a sinewy five-foot-seven with fashion-model good looks and Fairall with a bushy head of white hair that's usually stuffed under a baseball cap.

Bishop, nearly 29, announced her arrival on the world stage with a victory at the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto, and followed it up with a silver at the world championships a month later in Beijing.

Bishop had her heart set on a medal at the Rio Olympics, but in an event plagued by controversy — South African Caster Semenya, among suspected others, produces atypically high levels of natural testosterone — the Canadian crossed fourth, missing the podium by 0.13. Her post-race tears were for Fairall.

"Oh hell, yeah," Bishop said. "For both of us. Because we invested so much into the last four years. 2012 (London Olympics) was a bonus that we made that team, but we were both targeting 2016 back then. For us to put so much good hard work in together . . .it was hard. It still is hard. I don't know if it will ever heal.

"Maybe in 2020," she added hopefully, referencing the Tokyo Games.

The immediate focus is the world championships, which begin Friday. Bishop is ranked fifth behind Semenya, Burundi's Francine Niyonsaba, American Ajee Wilson and Sifan Hassan of the Netherlands.

She'll likely rewrite the Canadian record once again. In a race that has seen just five Canadian women dip under the two-minute mark, she is remarkably on the cusp of breaking 1:57 — "1:56.9 is the plan (for this summer)," Fairall said.

Dennis and Janet have been together for 47 years, and married for 43. Their days have slowed down to enjoying meals on their back deck, watching television and Fairall's physical therapy. Janet said it sometimes feels like they've been dealt a bad hand, since Fairall had beaten cancer of the larynx just prior to the London Olympics.

"It seemed like we'd just overcome a hurdle and we got hammered back down again," Janet said. "For me, the irony is that Dennis was finally coming into a situation where he was doing well with athletes (Bishop), and other athletes were recognizing that. Athletes have asked to be coached by him. We've had to say no."

Bellemore, Alex Ullman and Annie Leblanc are the three other athletes Fairall still coaches.

The path ahead isn't clearly mapped out. Fairall is kind of a "case study," Janet said, because of the rarity of his disease. Statistically, sufferers become severely disabled within about three to five years of onset.

Bishop prefers not to look too far ahead. "We're just trying to live in the moment and enjoy what we have now," she said. "I know what the future of this disease is, and we don't really go there. Not until we have to, I don't think.

"It's kind of like taking it season by season, as it is in track and field. We're just taking Dennis's disease season by season and hoping that we can get through the next one."

Janet is grateful Fairall's four athletes have stayed.

"I've often wondered . . .why bother staying with him? It's more work for them," she said quietly. "But they have deep faith in him, and loyalty runs really deep with all of them. It's a blessing for him too. Because it keeps him going."

Source: The Canadian Press