Nathan Riech has come a long way from feeling disappointed with his track career.
The 25-year-old’s commitment to Canada has paid off immensely, starting at the 2018 Berlin Grand Prix, winning gold in the 800m and 1500m, in addition to setting world records for both in the T38 category.
The T38 category is for athletes with coordination impairments in disability athletics.
He won gold in the 1500m at the 2019 Parapan Am Games and IPC (International Paralympic Committee) World Championships.
“I’ve been around gold medallists in the Olympics for many, many years,” said Riech. “I always picked their brain growing up and so, it’s almost like they were preparing me for this moment.
“It definitely helps your confidence when you kind of jump into a sport and it’s going the way you’re really hoping it goes.”
Riech’s athletic background is an extensive one.
His father, Todd Riech, was an Olympic javelin thrower for the United States. His mom, Ardin Tucker, was a pole vaulter for Canada. Grandpa Jim Harrison played in the NHL for eight years, and his uncle Trevor Harrison played rugby for Canada.
Growing up in Phoenix, Arizona (born in Fresno, California), baseball was his favourite sport.
“My stepdad (Ben Tucker) went to the College World Series with the University of Southern California,” he said. “Living in Arizona, that’s where the spring training is as well and in 2001, the Diamondbacks won the World Series and I went to game seven.
“So, I was basically in the middle of that culture and environment, so I personally just loved baseball.”
A golf ball that hit him in the back of the head from 150 yards out, changed everything at the young age of 10. The accident caused a brain injury that affected the right side of his body, dealing with paralysis.
After plenty of rehab, Riech took up track and field, running with able-bodied athletes. His family moved to Alpharetta, Georgia, when he was 16 years old, where he finished second at state championships in his senior year.
That led to Riech receiving a partial scholarship to Furman University. He later transferred to South Alabama University but his career at the Division 1 level, was not what he hoped for.
“My entire career, I honestly was a little disappointed with it,” Riech said. “I didn’t really get what I thought I could do.
“I ended up finishing third place at conference, which is all-conference but only did that once. Individually, I wanted to at least get one, hopefully a conference championship under my belt and I never did.”
His desire to get more out of his career began with his mother presenting the idea of him looking into being classified to be a Paralympian. That was the beginning of the turn around for his current success.
His mother is also the main influence behind Riech choosing to compete for Canada instead of the United States, where he was born and raised.
“My mom grew up in Canada, she competed for Canada,” he said. “Growing up, especially after I got paralyzed, my mom and I spent so much time together and she sacrificed so much for me.
“Even having me at such a young age, I feel like I may have been some of the reason why she didn’t make the Olympics in 2000.
“She had made sacrifices that probably weren’t the best for her training and so, she’s done so much for me, so that was a thank you.”
Another influence was his grandparents, especially his grandpa Jim Harrison.
“How much he loves that flag is something that I always strived to do for a country. And when I think the anthem is played for Canada, I just get that sensation and I get pretty emotional about it,” Riech said. “I wanted to run for a country that I get emotional when that flag goes up and so, that’s what it basically came down to.”
With all the success he’s had, his motivation doesn’t revolve around individual success in the Paralympics – it’s making sure the movement is pushed forward to help those who come after him.
“I think it really roots from getting paralyzed and understanding that there’s not a lot of opportunities within Paralympic sport or at least as many opportunities as there are in able-bodied sport,” he said. “I think I’m in a fortunate situation where I have over 10 professional athletes in my family.
“I’m lucky and they knew exactly what to do.”
It also leads to another goal, that of helping parents who might not know how to approach putting their disabled children into sports, and what avenues are available.
Despite initially having mixed emotions about the Paralympic Games being postponed to 2021, Riech looks forward to the opportunity of being able to take advantage of the time.
“After I talked to some of my inner circle, and especially my coach Heather Henningar, I realized this was an opportunity for me because I have pretty good speed, but my endurance is lacking right now,” he said. “And so, this gives me three or four blocks of training to really focus on that endurance training.
“I have goals of running from the front at the Paralympics and trying to set another world record but to be able to do that, I need to do all this work.”