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…