Nate Riech is one of Canada’s top medal hopes heading into the Tokyo Paralympics, where he’ll be a favourite to win gold in the T38 1,500m. Riech began running in the T38 classification (which is a para athletics division for athletes living with coordination impairment) in 2018, and he quickly established himself as one of the world’s best T38 middle-distance runners. He has broken multiple world records, and in 2019, he won gold in the 1,500m at the Parapan American Games and World Para Athletics Championships. He now has his eyes set on the top step of the Paralympic podium as he prepares for the Tokyo Games this summer.
Riech’s running journey
When Riech was 10 years old, he suffered an injury that changed his life forever. He was out golfing in Arizona, where he grew up, and was struck by an errant ball. On his way to the hospital, the entire right side of his body became paralyzed, and although sensation eventually returned and he was able to move again, doctors told him that his injury would affect him both physically and cognitively. They told Riech that he would be unable to play sports and that it was highly unlikely he would graduate from high school.
Riech says he was determined to prove his doctors wrong, and less than a year after his injury, he tried out for his school’s basketball team. “I think I was good enough to make the team,” he says. “I wouldn’t have been a starter, but I could have played with them. But my school’s running coach was helping with the try-outs, and he cut me on purpose because he saw that I had a brighter future in running.”
His coach’s plan worked, and Riech became an avid runner. “At first it was to just prove people wrong,” he says. “I wish I had just done it to prove myself right, but it really was like I was giving my doctors a figurative middle finger. Like, ‘You said I couldn’t walk, so I’m going to run.'”
In the following years, Riech developed into an elite runner, graduated from high school (once again proving his doctors wrong) and continued on to university, where he ran at the collegiate level. “People with disabilities learn that a lot of the times the biggest limits are the ones other people put on us,” he says now as he looks back at the obstacles he was told he would never overcome.
After graduating from the University of South Alabama in 2017, Riech got “classified” as a T38 athlete. “You have to get classified for para sports,” he says. “You do some range of motion tests, agility tests and then they watch you practice and race.” Since officially joining the T38 classification, he has broken the 800m and 1,500m world records on multiple occasions, and they now sit at 1:57.78 and 3:57.00.
Unfortunately, the 800m was recently removed from the T38 program, but it gives Riech the chance to devote all of his focus to the 1,500m. “I’ve broken the 1,500m world record a few times,” he says. “But what’s kind of annoying is that my PB is faster than my world record.” Riech explains that, in order to break a para athletics record, events have to be sanctioned by World Para Athletics (the governing body of para track and field).
Riech’s 1,500m T38 world record is a blazing-fast result, but his PB is even quicker, sitting at 3:51.62, which he ran at a 2018 event in Belgium that wasn’t WPA-certified. “It can be hard to get events sanctioned,” he says. Riech notes that while records aren’t his driving force in running, it is a bit disappointing when he runs a world record that’s slower than his personal best.
In 2019, Riech continued his dominance on the WPA circuit, winning gold in the 1,500m at the Parapan American Games in Peru (where he ran 4:03.72, an event record) and taking the win at the World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai (also in a meet-record time of 4:02:04). His next big goal is at the Tokyo Games, and he says he’s ready to give everything he has for the win.
Moving toward Tokyo
“I’m in a bit of an interesting situation,” Riech says. “I’ve already run the qualification time for Tokyo, so I’m just kind of hanging out and training hard for now without looking for many races.” He says he might enter some local races in Victoria, where he now lives and trains, assuming that they’re permitted to go ahead during the pandemic. The big race on his schedule is set for May at the Para Athletics Grand Prix (a series he likens to the Diamond League) in Paris.
“Paris is the big one we’re trying to target,” he says. “I’m currently easily the best shape I’ve ever been in, so I hope that race can go ahead and I can test my fitness.” Of course, he knows it’s hard to be sure of anything right now, and he isn’t letting himself get too hopeful at the prospect of racing this spring. After Paris, he’ll race at the Canadian Paralympic Trials in Montreal in June, and then he plans on heading to Gifu, Japan, for an early pre-Paralympics camp.
Despite the fact that Tokyo will be Riech’s first run at the Paralympics, he says he will be running for the gold and nothing else. “I run to win,” he says. “I can see myself getting first or blowing up and getting fifth, depending on how my strategy works out. But I’d rather get fifth after having given it my all rather than finishing in second and thinking, ‘Ah, I wish I’d gone for it.'”
This all-or-nothing attitude is what has gotten Riech to where he is today. He’s the kid who never should have made it past high school; the kid who wasn’t supposed to have a future in sports. He spent his childhood running to prove everyone else wrong, but now he can finally run for himself and to see just how far (and fast) he can go.