Q&A: Canadian 800 Star Melissa Bishop Opens Up About Her Olympic Heartbreak, What It’s Like Racing Caster Semenya and Why She Stayed in Canada For College
By Jonathan Gault
February 1, 2017
In 2016, Melissa Bishop put together one of the greatest seasons ever by a Canadian middle-distance runner. She went undefeated indoors, twice breaking the Canadian indoor record, before moving outdoors, where she broke her own Canadian outdoor record twice, the second time in the Olympic final. However, Bishop’s 1:57.02 in Rio was only good for fourth place behind South Africa’s Caster Semenya, Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba and Kenya’s Margaret Wambui, three women who were at the center of controversy after the IAAF was forced to suspend its hyperandrogenism guidelines by the Court of Arbitration for Sport in 2015. Had the court ruled differently, Bishop very well could be an Olympic gold medallist. Instead, she doesn’t have an Olympic medal at all.
The 28-year-old Bishop, who earned the silver medal in the 800 at the 2015 World Championships, is now looking ahead to her 2017 season, which begins on Saturday at the Camel City Elite in Winston-Salem, N.C (RSpace + starting at 2:15 pm ET). Last Sunday afternoon, I spoke to Bishop over the phone. She explained why she may never get over the disappointment of Rio, how she approaches racing the unbeatable Semenya and why she didn’t go to the U.S. for college.
JG: Where are you training right now and how training been going?
MB: Currently I’m in Miramar, Florida. We came down from Canada for a training camp down here, but we usually train out of Windsor, Ontario. Training’s been going pretty well. This is the first time on an outdoor track [this season]. We have a flat indoor track in Windsor that we train on so going over to Camel City almost feels like home racing on that track. But training’s been going well. We’re feeling good, and we’re just gonna kind of ride the fitness from last year.
What are you hoping for from this race on Saturday?
I’d love to go after the record that I set last year (2:02.10). I think that would be pretty cool. Anything 2:01 range I think would be good. I don’t have any really big expectations, but I would certainly would like to go after that record, I think that’s pretty fair.
Any do you have any more indoor races coming up after that?
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Yeah, I’m going over to the AIT meet in Ireland. That’s February 15, and then I’m going to head to Birmingham on the 18th and then that will be it.
And are those both 800’s as well?
They will both be 800’s, yeah.
Looking at last year, you ran some really great races, a ran a national record in the Olympic final last year, yet you didn’t get a medal. Looking back, what are your feelings on your 2016 season?
2016 I’m really proud of. It’s still disappointing that I didn’t come away with a medal because I think that that was such a huge goal for me. And it’s still one of the things that’s left unchecked, for another four years anyway, because they only come every four years. But to be so close to that 1:56 barrier, that’s huge to me. And after Rio, you know immediately after the 1:57.0, [it] didn’t really seem all that great. But now that I’ve had to time to think about it and probably if I had ran that at any other meet other than the Olympic final and finished fourth, I would have been ecstatic about it at the time. But just being in the Olympic final and being so close to a medal, there was more disappointment there than excitement. But now that I’ve had time to think about it, I think it was a really great year. We crossed a lot of things off the list.
I saw an earlier interview with you that said you took an entire month of running off after the Olympics. Is that correct, and are your postseason breaks normally that long?
Yep, that’s pretty normal for us. We kind of just step away from everything. I go home to my parents’ house, and just spend some time there just being with the family. Because the schedule, it’s too much during the year to get home and be with them. I get time to spend at home and time to just hang out and do things that I didn’t get to do all summer and just catch up with some friends. A month is very normal for us to take off.
Does that help you at all mentally? I know you were so disappointed after missing out on the medal in Rio. Did it help you get in a better state of mind mentally, spending time with your friends and family back home?
Yeah, I think the mental break to just get away from the whole track and field world, just to step away from that, is a huge break mentally. I don’t have to think about what’s coming up next. I don’t need to schedule my eating patterns around when I’m running or schedule my social patterns around when I’m running. It’s nice just to kind of put that job aside for a month and actually be on holidays and not have to think about that.
And then coming back, getting back into things when the fall hits, I feel refreshed and I feel ready to go and I’m antsy to kind of have that schedule again, that tight timeline of eating, sleeping, recovering, training.
Are you “over” the disappointment of Rio? Or is it still fresh for you, does it still have an effect on you?
I wouldn’t say I’m over it. I don’t know if I will ever be over a fourth-place finish in Rio. But certainly, I am looking forward to the years coming and to this year. If I sit and dwell on it, it’s not going to change what happened. I can have that disappointment, I think, but I can’t stay there because I won’t be able to move forward and move through with my season. So yeah, I’m still disappointed but I don’t think it’s going to hold me back.
So last year, Caster Semenya put together one of the greatest seasons ever by an 800 runner last year. She didn’t lose a single race. How do you approach a competition against someone who’s so dominant and do you still go into races with the expectation that you can win?
I think you have to go into every race thinking you can win. I can’t automatically go into the race thinking that I’m going to lose. Caster is human. She can fall, she can trip, just like the rest of us. It’s not to say that she’s going to win every race.
And yeah, she had a spectacular season. She’s another competitor, Jonathan, on the line with me. And I don’t look at her any other way. I have to race her no matter what and yeah, I think that I’m going to win going into these races. I would think no less of myself.
Last year, the women’s 800 wasn’t really an easy event for anyone to discuss. Everyone knows about the changes to the hyperandrogenism rules. I’m sure you were asked a million questions about things that were happening outside of the track. How did that extra attention, all of those questions, affect you?
You know, especially around Rio it was really hard because I was trying so hard just to focus on the racing. And so it was hard to discuss that because I can’t control what happens. And even to discuss it with anybody today or tomorrow, it’s the same thing.
Look, I can’t change what’s happening. Caster can’t change what’s happening. This is so far out of our control that I can’t sit here and worry about it. That would just put me into a big hole. I would dig myself a hole I wouldn’t be able to get out of. I would lose the fun of the sport and the love of the sport if I was constantly worried about this issue. So I’ve chosen to kind of forget about it and keep going on with my day today and worrying about the things I can control.
In terms of either training or preparation, have you made any changes to your approach heading into this season?
No, not right yet. We’ve done pretty much the normal thing leading up into indoors. I think indoors is just about getting that speed back and getting to that hurt zone again, just kind of get there to experience it before going into outdoors. So I think this is a really great opportunity to maybe try some new things and not be afraid just to push it to certain levels. But nothing has really changed within our training program, nothing will really change.
What are your goals for 2017?
2017, I think if I can run another Canadian record, be on the podium at World Championships, those would be huge goals for me.
If you run a(nother) Canadian record (1:57.02), you’re probably going to be right under 1:57. Sometimes, in our sport, there are these seemingly arbitrary barriers between 1:57.00 and 1:56.99, third and fourth place. But they mean so much to the people involved. Do you think about these tiny differences and reconcile that there’s really not much of a difference between these two things?
I don’t know if I’ve ever thought about that because it is such a small amount, it’s almost like an extra lean at the line that would have got me the 1:56.99. I don’t know if I really have sat and thought about it.
Yeah, there’s a little time difference between two really big barriers and I think it’s just a matter of putting together the perfect race. I don’t think I’ve run that perfect race yet. I don’t know if I ever will. But it’s just having things fall into place at the right time and just mentally, physically being in the right race on the right day, I think it will happen.
Tactically, the 800 is one of the toughest events out there. If you could give one piece of racing advice to younger athletes about racing the 800, what would it be?
That it takes time to learn the event. I walked into this event as a 2:12 runner and was dreaming of 1:59 for years and years and years. It takes time to get here. I’m just starting to see results in these years and I’ve been doing this sport for almost 14, 15 years.
Just to enjoy the ride and have fun with it. You’re going to experience some ups and downs with injuries, things like that. I’ve been there, done that, but if you really want it, you’ve gotta go after it. You’ve gotta have fun and work really hard to get there.
A lot of top Canadians will go to the U.S. for college, but you didn’t (Bishop enrolled at the University of Windsor and still trains under former U of W coach Dennis Fairall). Why not?
Yeah. I actually got injured. I was planning on going, I had applied to a few different universities and I was speaking with them. But I got injured and the calls kind of stopped overnight. I had to stay in Canada and it actually worked out for the better.
What schools were you looking at in the States?
Oh goodness. There was one in Florida, I couldn’t tell you which one. Virginia Tech. Honestly, I can’t even remember. It was so long ago.
How do you feel the Canadian development system is different from the U.S. system?
That’s a good question. I don’t know if I’ve ever thought about that. I think now more of our younger athletes are choosing to stay in Canada because they see that we still have the opportunities to run really well in Canada.
I don’t know a single thing about the American development system so I cannot speak to that. But I do know within Canada, we do have some next-gen programs which are focusing on developing athletes who they are targeting for 2020 and 2024, just keeping an eye on them and helping them get to that next level. So I think that’s a great way that Canada is keeping an eye on its athletes and hopefully encouraging them to stay in Canada.
How do you think your career would have been different if you went to the U.S. for college instead of staying in Canada?
You know, I don’t know. That’s something I don’t know I will ever know. I’m sure I still would have tried my best to make the Olympic team but I don’t know. I think it would depend on the program I’m in and the coach I had and the people I surrounded myself with. I think that makes a big difference on development of an athlete and your rising through the food chain from college to pro and finding consistency within all of that. I think that can be hard for college kids in general.
This interview has been condensed for clarity.