'This is our journey:' Melissa Bishop sticks by ailing coach's side
Bishop is running faster than ever as her coach battles a rare brain disease
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.
Despite being separated by five time zones, the coach lovingly known as "Big Dawg" and the finest 800-metre runner Canada has ever produced will be in sync.
Fairall is battling progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP), a rare degenerative brain disease that has no cure and is slowly stealing his mobility and speech.
First major race tests long-distance relationship
The world championship is 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's the reigning world silver medallist, is running faster than ever, recording a time of one minute 57.01 seconds 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. "This has been our career for 10 years, I've put absolute trust in him for the last 10 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 fiance 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 resurfaced blue and yellow 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 fieldhouse, it's almost like there's an aura around him. He feels like he's home."
Janet and Dennis arrived at a recent workout, pulling into the parking lot in their black SUV before Janet unloaded Dennis's convertible walker/wheelchair. Bishop had arrived an hour earlier to warm up. For the next hour, Janet became part protector/part assistant coach, clutching the workout she'd typed out for her husband the previous night in her left hand, while her right hand never left Fairall's back, guarding against another devastating fall.
Loss of balance is one of PSP's most perilous symptoms. It strikes with no notice. Fairall has broken seven bones so far.
"The weird thing about his condition is he can be standing up and be perfectly fine, and then he just falls over," Janet said. "He tends to fall backwards."
'What if he doesn't recover?'
Fairall was coming up the stairs from his basement the first time he fell. He lost his balance and toppled backwards, breaking several ribs. The next time he was getting out of his car at practice and lurched into a parking curb, breaking his humerus, the bone between the shoulder and elbow. The next time he fell into the doorframe in his home office, breaking his collarbone.
"Every time it happens it's just like 'What if he doesn't recover from this one?"' Bishop said. "It's always the 'what-if,' right? I've been around for a few of them, and they're very scary moments. He's got a good team around him, now that Janet can be with him, and his doctors, we can keep an eye on him at least.
"But it's scary. This is somebody who has my entire career at their fingertips and has helped me come to the very top and realize all my dreams, and just one of these falls . . . What if?"
His most recent fall prompted Janet to take an early retirement from her job as principal of Dr. David Suzuki Public School. 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.
"I came home and he was face down on the floor in a pool of blood," Janet said. "I thought 'Uh-oh, if this is what we're going to be dealing with, I can retire, so why don't I? I can take care of him.
"Because he scared the crap out of me."
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 a 150-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.
Janet laughed when recounting 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 700-metre 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.
"You have to make the best of things, right?" Janet said.
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 much how I'm feeling. It takes little communication for us to relay that. I has been a little bit of a change, just the disease running its course. It's tough. But 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. Fairall, despite his "Big Dawg" nickname, stands about the same height, smiles through a gap between his front teeth, and has a bushy head of white hair that's usually stuffed under a baseball cap.
Bishop, who turns 29 on Saturday, grew up in Eganville, Ont., about 130 kilometres northwest of Ottawa. She moved to Windsor for university and "did well" for the Lancers, but "not exceptionally well," Fairall said.
She announced her arrival on the world stage with a victory at the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto, and then followed it up with a silver at the world championships a month later in Beijing, Canada's first world medal by a woman in the event.
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 Olympics.
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.
Whether or not the podium is within reach, 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 recently purchased an upscale ranch home in LaSalle, a few minutes from downtown Windsor, so Fairall wouldn't have to negotiate stairs.
A half of dozen boxes of memories, including team photos and plaques, sit unpacked in their basement. Janet rightly stated there's no room to hang them all.
They've been together for 47 years, and married for 43. They have two grown children, son Jeremy and daughter Erin, and two granddaughters. Janet, who met Fairall when she was 14, recounted how even as a kid, Fairall liked to organize sporting events in their Tillsonburg, Ont., neighbourhood. He'd run the neighbourhood kids through obstacle courses or construct mini golf courses.
Globe-trotting coach now tied to home
Fairall was a sprinter at Western Ontario and then founded the Tillsonburg Legion Track Club in 1974. He was its head coach until Windsor hired him away in 1985, and was famous for bringing star athletes such as hurdlers Mark McCoy and American Roger Kingdom to compete in his Tillsonburg Invitational meet. The athletes were billeted in homes around the town of 15,000 near London, Ont.
Fairall coached more than 1,800 athletes at Windsor alone, his impact evident in the countless weddings he and Janet have attended — 13 in one summer alone. The "big one," said Janet, will be on Thanksgiving weekend when Bishop marries Nriagu, a former long and high jumper for the Lancers. The young couple recently bought a home in Tecumseh, on the outskirts of Windsor.
Dennis and Janet are adjusting to be anchored to home.
"I wasn't ready to retire," Janet said. "But sometimes life takes you where you don't want to go. I signed onto this job (marriage) before I signed onto that job. I'm going to do anything to maintain his dignity."
A week earlier, the globe-trotting couple mapped out their travels on Facebook — Dennis had been to 42 countries, and Janet to 34.
"And a lot of those countries we've been to multiple times," Janet said. "Dennis had sand under his feet. He loved to travel."
The Rio Olympics was their last major trip. Athletics Canada supplied Fairall with his own car and driver, and even took the couple sightseeing up Sugar Loaf Mountain and Christ the Redeemer.
"They were so good to him," Janet said.
Their days have slowed down to enjoying meals on their back deck, watching television — sports or CNN — and Fairall's physical therapy. Fairall is a huge sports fan whose father was a scout for the Cleveland Indians. His favourite team is the Detroit Tigers.
"We call it 'Groundhog Day,' don't we Den?" Janet said. "It's the same day over and over."
Former athletes drop in. Former decathlete and bobsledder Chris Lori had been by a day earlier.
They've also been making the awards-show rounds like A-list actors. Fairall has been bestowed with numerous honours, including being named one of Tillsonburg's "Favourite Sons." He's been inducted into the Windsor/Essex County Sports Hall of Fame. And in May, he was presented with an honorary doctorate by the University of Windsor.
"I'm Dr. Dawg now," Fairall said with a laugh.
Disease another hurdle after Fairall beat cancer
Janet walked onstage with Fairall to receive the degree, and as she's become accustomed to doing, gave his acceptance speech.
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's to come. I think he knows what's to come. 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."