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After pregnancy, injuries and a pandemic, Bishop-Nriagu finally hitting her stride

There's a charming video on Melissa Bishop-Nriagu's Instagram feed of one of her recent 800-metre races in the U.S. Broadcasters are announcing the runners lining up at the start. Back home in Windsor, Ont.

There's a charming video on Melissa Bishop-Nriagu's Instagram feed of one of her recent 800-metre races in the U.S.

Broadcasters are announcing the runners lining up at the start. Back home in Windsor, Ont., Bishop-Nriagu's daughter Corinne, who'll turn three in July, is watching on a big-screen TV with dad Osi. She spots her mom with delight. 

"Mommy!" Corinne squeals. "Is that my mommy?" 

The race didn't go well. But that adorable few seconds of video, Bishop-Nriagu said, brought everything home.

"I shed every sharp edge I had about that race, it just took it away, and that's the beauty of children, there is no filter," she said. "It's like 'Is that my mommy?' Yeah girl, that is your mommy. That is so cool to see, and so heartwarming for me."

A week later, Bishop-Nriagu raced to her fastest 800 metres since becoming a mom — one minute 59.04 seconds last week in Chula Vista, Calif. — dipping under the Tokyo Olympic standard of 1:59.50.

Securing that standard wasn't just a relief after a year wiped out by COVID-19, but a triumphant moment that was a long time coming.

"It's more or less like I haven't been on the running scene for the better part of three years, just given babies and injuries and a pandemic," said the 32-year-old from Eganville, Ont. "There's nothing like just throwing yourself back into it, and knowing that you can do it — that is just such a huge relief and I'm just so happy."

Bishop-Nriagu's Canadian record is 1:57.01 set in 2017, a year after her fourth-place finish at the Rio Olympics. She took 2018 off to have a baby — Corinne was born on July 2. She struggled with post-pregnancy injuries in 2019 and shut her season down early, missing the 2019 world championships.

"It was just injury after injury and it boiled down to: I was ready to do the work, but my body couldn't handle the load that I needed to put on it to perform at that level," she said. "And it's not uncommon in women coming back to elite sport or coming back to sport or exercise in general. Like, it's just a different ball game."

If she'd been back in top form last summer, the global pandemic erased any chance of finding out. And then, since she had zero fast outdoor races under her belt, she was on the bubble to even qualify for Tokyo. The two ways to get there are to be ranked in the top 48, or run the automatic entry standard. Bishop-Nriagu had been around the low-40s.

Making matters worse, Canada's third wave of the virus, with its strict travel and capacity restrictions, has cast doubt on the track and field season in Canada. So Bishop-Nriagu, along with many of her Canadian teammates, headed to the U.S. to compete.

Her workouts had pointed to a fast race last week, and she's confident she was only scratching the surface.

"We're in a good spot right now," she said. "And I'm really excited. "There's still lots in there."

On Sunday, Bishop-Nriagu will race at the Mt. SAC Relays in Walnut, Calif., in an 800 field brimming with Canadian talent. 

Madeleine Kelly, the 2019 Canadian champion, is flirting with the two-minute milestone, running 2:00.59 last weekend in Corvallis, Ore. Lindsey Butterworth was right on her heels in 2:00.97. Laurence Cote, with a personal best of 2:01.87, is also in the field.

"It's very exciting," Bishop-Nriagu said. "If we can send a team of three women in the 800 metres to the Olympics? That's unheard of. That's amazing."

The 25-year-old Kelly agreed.

"There's so many women who I really believe are capable of this, it's a very cool time to be a Canadian woman running," she said. "Like, across so many events, we've never seen it this competitive to make an Olympics, especially in the distance events. There are ton of women duking it out in the 5K. And Gabriela (DeBues-Stafford) has shattered what we thought was possible for Canadian women in the 1,500. The marathon has got all those ladies (five women have the qualifying standard, but Canada can only send three). It's super exciting."

Another big bonus to being south of the border is that virtually all the Canadian athletes there, including a couple dozen in California plus a sprint group in Louisiana, have received at least their first COVID-19 vaccine.

"I didn't expect to feel that relieved, I just felt this weight shed off my shoulders that I really didn't know I was carrying," Bishop-Nriagu said. "I feel so much better going into Tokyo being vaccinated."

In this roller-coaster pre-Olympic season, the fate of the Canadian Olympic trials, June 23-27 in Montreal, is still to be determined. In a non-pandemic Olympic season, and before World Athletics implemented its complicated qualifying system, the team was largely selected based on the top three across the finish line at trials.

Now? It's as clear as mud, and made murkier by the fact athletes have struggled to find top meets to run, jump and throw their qualifying marks.

Bishop-Nriagu said many of her teammates currently in the U.S. will stay there until it's determined whether they need to return home for the trials.

"But I'm going to go home," she said. "I am dying to see my family."

She'll also race next weekend in Los Angeles, and then return home to complete her 14-day quarantine in locked-down Ontario.

"It's frustrating to see . . . how life is starting to come back a little bit to normal (in California), versus what it's like at home, because I talk to Osi every day and I talk to my parents and I obviously follow the news.

"I think we just have to remember that we're just a little bit further behind than we had originally planned in Canada. And we will get to this point soon."

She at least has a treadmill, weights, and a bike in her home gym for the quarantine period.

"It's not an ideal scenario. But it is the world we live in right now," she said.This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 7, 2021. 

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press