TORONTO – Friends, family, coaches – lend me a hand.
That phrase could potentially encapsulate how Para runner Nathan Riech (pronounced Reesh) has emerged as one of Canada’s top athletes. Riech burst on the international scene last year when he broke the world record in the T38 800-m and 1500-m races at the Berlin Grand Prix.
He was named Athletic Canada’s Ambulatory Athlete of the Year for 2018.
Now he is a gold medal contender for Canada at next month’s Parapan American Games and the 2019 IPC World Para Athletics Championships, as well as the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.
But his development was far from an overnight success. It was more than 10 years in the making.
At age 10, a freak accident changed Riech’s world. He was playing golf with some friends and a player from another group whacked a ball from 150 yards away which accidently hit Riech in the back of his head.
He was diagnosed with a brain injury which affected the right side of his body.
‘’The doctor told me I was never going to walk again, and definitely would never play competitive sports again,’’ said the 24-year-old now based in Victoria. ‘’That was not the life I hoped for.
‘’It left me with a chip on my shoulder and put a fire in my belly. My mother always said I was always talented but I didn’t have that fire until after the accident.’’
Years of physio, which continue to this day, have helped put Riech back on two legs and as a competitive athlete, you can’t get much higher than wearing your national team colours.
One of his first hurdles to success was middle school in Arizona. Riech was the subject of ridicule from some of his classmates. They teased him for his limp and his stuttering, caused by the accident, which he described as terrible at that age.
‘’I was really having a tough time trying to figure out who I was,’’ he said. ‘’The kids were making fun of me, telling me I would never amount to anything. It’s hard not to let them get to you. But I had some good friends that stood up for me. My advice today would be to tell those bullies that I’m not OK with that, I don’t appreciate that.
‘’It made more determined I was not going to let this thing knock me down.’’
Being a runner started to give Riech an identity as he excelled in the sport. He received a partial scholarship to run at Furman University (in Greenville, SC), then transferred to the University of South Alabama (in Mobile, AL) for his remaining college athletics eligibility. He finished all conferences in the indoor mile his senior year against able-bodied competitors.
Riech comes from an impressive athletic family. His father Todd Riech competed at the 1996 Olympics in javelin for the USA. His mother Ardin Tucker was a pole vaulter for Canada and his grandfather Jim Harrison played eight years in the NHL with the Maple Leafs, Blackhawks and Bruins.
With his success Riech wanted to be a full-time athlete. That’s when his mother floated the idea of becoming a Paralympian. The family made enquiries and Riech ticked off all the boxes to eventually get classified. But would it be Team USA or Team Canada?
Riech’s mind was already made up.
‘’My mother is the most important person in my life,’’ he said. ‘’I was a pretty emotional kid growing up, very high and low. She was very patient with me and never told me I couldn’t do something. She made it made very clear that it might take me longer because of my condition but that’s OK. She was very positive that I would be able to do it. She’s the person I talk to the most.
‘’I’m lucky to have her.’’
In 2018, Riech moved from Phoenix to Victoria to train at the Canadian Sport Institute Pacific which has provided him with structure in his training program. The results in 2019 are already impressive and include a world record performance earlier this year in the 1500-m at the Portland Twilight Meet.
‘’I’m being coached by Mike Van Tighem and Heather Hennigar. They are there everyday watching me train. It’s been awesome and I’m way fitter this year. I’m staying in the zone. With all the sports and science we are training smarter now which is really going to help me in the long run.
‘’I have the greatest support.’’
Don’t be surprised, if Riech steps on the podium at the 2019 Parapan Am Games, the first people he thanks are his friends, family and coaches.