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Canadian runner Bishop says she's stronger for troubles she, coach have faced

WINDSOR, Ont. — Dennis Fairall isn't a big hugger.

But after Melissa Bishop sprinted down the home stretch in the 800-metre semifinals at the world championships last August, obliterating the Canadian record in the process, he made an exception.

When coach and runner met later on the warmup track that night in Beijing, Fairall wrapped Bishop in a telling embrace.

"Just knowing what we've been through, what he's been through," Bishop said.

Fairall has coached Bishop for nine years, since the 27-year-old from Eganville, Ont., first arrived on the University of Windsor campus. The past couple of years have been marked by both glorious triumphs and heartbreaking setbacks.

The biggest blow has been Fairall's health.

After beating cancer of the larynx, the 62-year-old was diagnosed two years ago with progressive supranuclear palsy — PSP — a degenerative condition that results from deterioration of cells in the brain that control body movement and thinking. It has affected his balance — he falls often — and his vision.

There's no cure. Survival from onset averages seven years.

Fairall left the university on long-term disability this fall, after 29 years. His coaching world shrunk from more than 100 athletes to Bishop and two others.

A coaching icon, Fairall has been named either CIS or OUA coach of the year 65 times in track and field and cross-country. His teams have won 71 CIS and OUA titles, including 20 CIS national track titles. Some 1,800 athletes have competed for the Lancers in Fairall's time there.

Like parents of a giant extended family, he and his wife Janet, a school principal, have attended dozens of weddings.

"He's been such a great person to so many people, and he's helped so many people," Bishop said. "We were at the (Canadian) training camp in Victoria (earlier this month), and every single person was asking about Dennis: 'Where is he?' 'How is he doing?' Everybody knows Dennis."

A wizard at race tactics, Fairall drew up Bishop's race plans in Beijing. She executed them perfectly.

The 5-7 runner sat comfortably in fourth for most of the semifinal, on the outside shoulder of Belarusian Marina Arzamasova. Bishop made her move with 200 metres to go, winning in a blistering one minute 57.52 seconds, breaking Diane Cummins' 14-year-old Canadian record of 1:58.31.

Bishop won silver the next night, Canada's first ever world medal in the women's 800. It was one of a record eight by the Canadian squad.

For Bishop, it followed an emotional year that saw her lose her grandfather on the day of her final at the 2014 Commonwealth Games. She suffered a torn abdominal muscle that wiped out her indoor season, then — while at a training camp in Flagstaff, Ariz. — a cousin she'd grown up with died in a car crash.

She rebounded to win Pan Am gold in Toronto, and her finish-line photo — arms outstretched, wide smile — will be one of the most enduring of the Games.

Bishop says Fairall's health hasn't affected their partnership. He draws up the workouts every Sunday, and they meet three times a week. He continues to travel to meets and camps, often with Janet. Bishop does most of the driving and cooking when it's just the two of them on the road — but that's been their deal since Day 1.

Bishop's loyalty means a lot to Janet.

"Sometimes I wonder, she sees your condition, why she hangs on," she said to her husband. "Why wouldn't she move onto somebody else, because that's what lots of athletes have done. They go where they get their needs fulfilled. But she's loyal."

"And she's a very caring young lady," she added. "She's very empathetic and she sees that everything has a connection, she knows that people go through things, she's been through things herself. In the long run, she likes the guidance and advice he gives her."

Bishop says the partnership works for many reasons, with the give-and-take between the two at the top of her list.

She reckons she's become a stronger athlete and person for what they've been through.

"Absolutely," she said. "You just learn so much more about yourself when things don't go the way you want them to ... You become more prepared for life in general."

Fairall and his wife sat in the Lancers boardroom on a recent night. Fairall looked sharp in golf shirt and khakis, his full head of white hair neatly combed. There were no hints of his health problems. His handwriting is the one telltale— "but it was brutal to begin with," he laughed.

Next door is his office, where his name still hangs over the door. A photo collage of Bishop, displayed around a neatly-folded Canadian team jacket, hangs in a frame in the hallway.

Fairall says he misses the camaraderie on campus, and looks forward to the thrice-weekly workouts with Bishop. His week is otherwise filled with medical appointments. Watching sports on TV and chores help fill in the gaps.

"I'm kept fairly busy. But not real busy," Fairall said.

He believes Bishop can win a medal at this summer's Rio Olympics.

"I think she will, because she looks totally different, in training she looks like a 1:57 runner. Her times aren't substantially different, but she's carrying herself differently, so that's a good thing. Her confidence level is really high."

Fairall and his wife, who've travelled to dozens of countries over their 45 years together, look forward to going to Rio.

"That's the plan now," Fairall said.

Added Janet: "We'll see what life throws our way."

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

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