Lindsey Butterworth ‘fearless’ against world’s top runners in drive for Olympic spot

Melissa Bishop-Nriagu has a message for fellow Canadian middle-distance runner Lindsey Butterworth: Trust yourself and your coach.

In May 2012, Bishop-Nriagu was flirting with a two-minute time in the 800 metres while pursuing the Canadian Olympic qualifying standard of 1:59.90. The native of Eganville, Ont., entered the prestigious Prefontaine Classic Diamond League meet on June 1 fresh off a 2:00.76 clocking in Puerto Rico.

“What I remember is everything was clicking for us,” Bishop-Nriagu says of Dennis Fairall, the legendary track coach at the University of Windsor in Ontario. “My roommate at the time, [American] Molly Beckwith [now Ludlow], just broke two minutes for the first time [on May 11]. She said, ‘Just sit on my butt, I’ll pull you through.’ Dennis and I had a training plan and I just got under the standard.”

Bishop-Nriagu crossed the finish line third in 1:59.82, followed by Beckwith in fourth in 2:00.13. Jessica Smith of North Vancouver, B.C., was fifth and stood with her teammate under a tent when Bishop-Nriagu’s time flashed on the board at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore.

“We were jumping up and down and she was equally as excited for me as I was,” recalls Bishop-Nriagu, who placed 30th that summer at the London Olympics before posting a Canadian record time of 1:57.01 in July 2017 at Monaco. “I know it’s in Lindsey. It’s just a matter of putting things together.”

Butterworth, who also hails from North Vancouver, is Smith’s training partner and coached by Brit Townsend, a two-time Olympian in the 800. After a five-month training block during the coronavirus pandemic, Butterworth spent the past week building off a strong world championship last October, lowering her time in each of three races over five days and concluding with a best performance of 2:01.01 on Tuesday in Rovereto, Italy.

WATCH | Lindsey Butterworth reaches podium at Brussels Diamond League:

Kenyan Faith Kipyegon won the women’s 1,000 metre race at the Diamond League event in Brussels with a time of 2:29.92, less than a second shy of the world record. Burnaby, B.C.’s Lindsey Butterworth finished 3rd. 5:36

The 2018 Canadian champion, who set a 2:00.31 personal-best time last July in Portland, says her legs felt good while the race conditions — “perfect temperature and no wind” — provided a setting for a faster time, “but you never really know [when it might happen]. My expectations are always so high.

“Based on a couple of [recent] races in Montreal, I was definitely expecting to have a PB already.”

Deep field

Townsend notes Butterworth relaxed a little for a 100-metre stretch midway through Tuesday’s race — something they agreed “everyone does” — and that may have cost the latter a chance at her goal of two minutes. Only five Canadian women have run faster.

“We’re going to try to change that [slowing at the 400-metre mark] because that’ll be the difference in positioning and getting the time you want,” says Townsend, the head coach of track and field and cross country at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C. “She ran exactly what we wanted, 58 [seconds] through the 400 … and pushed well in the last 300.

“She passed a lot of people and it was a really hard and deep field, probably something she hasn’t had since the world championships.”

Canada’s 2-minute women

  • Melissa Bishop-Nriagu, 1:57.01 personal-best (2017)
  • Diane Cummins, 1:58.39 (2001)
  • Charmaine Crooks, 1:58.52 (1990)
  • Fiona Benson, 1:59.59 (2015)
  • Jessica Smith, 1:59.86 (2012)

Butterworth will try to meet the 1:59:50 standard by July 29, 2021 needed to make her Olympic debut a month later in Tokyo after this year’s Games was postponed in March due to the pandemic. She could also qualify based on world ranking and currently sits 23rd.

The 27-year-old says her 10th-place finish last year at worlds “opened my eyes to what I can do.” She ran 2:00.74 in the semifinals in Doha, Qatar, failing to advance by 42-100ths of a second in what Butterworth calls her best-ever tactical showing on the track.

WATCH | Butterworth advances to 800m semis at 2019 worlds:

Burnaby, B.C.’s Lindsey Butterworth takes fourth place in the third heat of the women’s 800m event in Doha, Qatar. 4:13

“Being so close to making the final allowed me to see what I can accomplish and it definitely helped my motivation and confidence,” says Butterworth, who works full-time as a NCAA academic adviser at SFU, where she starred on the track before graduating in 2015. “It was a positive experience that fuelled my self-belief. I know I can compete at that [major championship] level. I’m very motivated and hungry [for Tokyo].”

‘She’s not afraid to compete against the best’

Townsend was happy how Butterworth performed on the track and adapted to the COVID-19 protocols, first at two competitions in Belgium and then Italy, saying the resilience the runner displayed would serve her well in an Olympic year.

“She took it as an opportunity and embraced what was possible in those meets,” says Townsend, a seven-time National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics coach of the year. “She’s not afraid to compete and compete against the best.”

Confidence on the track, Bishop-Nriagu says, was the biggest change in Butterworth at the Canadian championships last summer in Montreal, where she finished fourth in 2:02.64. Bishop-Nriagu was second in 2:02.40.

“She has a plan and is no longer waiting for the race to play out,” Bishop-Nriagu says. “As you gain confidence and become more comfortable on the track your guts start to show, and she’s got ’em.

“Going sub-2 is such an exciting thing but every move you make counts on that track because it’s tenths of seconds that make a big difference. There are so many factors that need to change in a race in order to shave one or two seconds off your time and that takes time, practice and maturity.

“I know [Butterworth] trusts Brit and trusts her training because it’s showing right now [in her results],” adds Bishop-Nriagu, the 2015 world silver medallist who finished fourth at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. “It’s just a matter of keep doing what you can and staying healthy.”