Athletics: Bishop ran in farm mud to hone skills

Mary Ann Bishop competes in the women’s 50 plus long jump in the Masters Games at the Caledonian...
Mary Ann Bishop competes in the women’s 50 plus long jump in the Masters Games at the Caledonian Ground in Dunedin yesterday. Photo by Linda Robertson.
One of the Otago pioneers of women's distance running, Mary Ann Bishop (nee O'Connell), was at her inspirational best when she won nine medals in the Masters Games track and field competition at the Caledonian Ground on Saturday.

Bishop's medal haul included six gold, one silver and two bronze, but, in her typical manner, she was quick to play down her feat.

Now 59, Bishop has witnessed first hand how running and athletics have evolved since she took up the sport 50 years ago.

Running was in the family genes.

Her father and grandfather were both notable runners in their day and her older brother, Daniel O'Connell, is a past national cross-country representative and holds the 30-year-old record of 17min 45sec for the annual Kelly's Canter on Puketapu Hill, in Palmerston.

‘‘He was the fastest policeman for 20 years,'' a proud Bishop said.

O'Connell won the national police cross-country title for 20 consecutive years.

From a talented family of eight children, another of Mary Ann's brothers, Denis, is a past winner of the Barnes Cross-country and younger sister Joan held a lap record for the Coast Road Relay for 10 years.

But it was the attraction of mud that maintained Bishop's interest in running as a child. This spilled over to running around the family farm and learning to hurdle the wire gates.

This skill would later pay off when she beat Olympic Games marathon representative Mary O'Connor to win the senior women's title at the Skellerup Steeplechase.

While training to be a nurse, Bishop would run to the Dunedin Hospital nurses' home from the family home at Seacliff.

‘‘I thought that since I could do that then I could run a marathon,'' she said.

She has since run 20 marathons, with a best time of 3hr 12min, and a number of half-marathons, with a best time of 1hr 20min.

A lot of Bishop's early distance races had to be run unofficially, as women were not given the same status as men until the early 1980s.

Bishop's association with running has been intermittent since the sport began accepting women on an equal footing with men in distance events, due to work and family commitments. But her infectious enthusiasm has never waned, as evidenced on Saturday.

● Making a comeback to field events a decade after they retired from competition were Blair Stewart (38) and James Simpson (33).

Stewart still holds Otago age-group and senior records for the javelin, while Oamaru-born Simpson's under-15 shot put record has stood for almost 20 years.


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