“You’ll never be able to walk without a limp.”
Nathan Riech still remembers when the doctors told him those words, as he lay on the hospital bed after being struck by a golf ball 15 years ago.
At that point at age 10, Riech just wanted to walk down the hallway. To say that he could have possibly made his Paralympic debut 15 years later, the journey with the people that have gotten him to where he is now remains his proudest achievement so far.
“Everyone highlights the last two years because that’s what they’ve seen, but for me, my journey started after I got hurt,” Riech recalls on Instagram Live. “I slowly got better, and slowly be able to run. All of a sudden, I’m placing top in the state championships in Georgia, making the final at Canadian juniors, and just the transition from each level to the next.”
“There’s been a lot of downs that’s for sure, I’ve failed more than I’ve succeeded. The medals and everything have been awesome but the memories and the people around me is what I cherish,” Reich added.
Having gone through that journey, Riech wants to bring attention to more para-athletes and their stories. After a successful 2019 season that saw him rocket onto the biggest stage of his life so far, Nathan Riech goal remains clear.
“I want to evolve the Paralympic movement,” Riech says. “It’s not something that can be done by myself, it’s something that needs to be done collectively throughout the world.”
With what would have been the start of the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics this week, the Paralympic dreams that Riech and para-athletes all over the world have been postponed.
The 25-year-old middle-distance runner has been staying busy, not wanting to let the momentum from last season go to waste. After winning the 2019 Parapan American Games gold medal before claiming the World Para Athletics Championships title in the men’s T38 1500 metres, Riech has continued to work on his abilities, remaining hungry to lower his T38 1500 metre world record.
Seeing the success of his compatriots, on both the para and able-bodied side, Riech feels like this is a good time to refine and work on his skills, with results quickly being seen on the track.
“Seeing Moh Ahmed, that’s going to have a trickle-down effect,” said Riech about Mohammed Ahmed’s recent Canadian 5000 metre record in Portland, Oregon. “Moh definitely got me hyped to really execute and look at those small things. There’s so much ebbs and flows in training, so I think having that little glimpse of how Moh executed his races, that’s something I definitely want to do.”
Over the years, Riech has developed his talents, running with Furman University and, later on with the South Alabama Jaguars to finish off his collegiate career in 2017. He currently holds both the 800- and 1500-metre world records in the T38 category, and holds personal-best times of 1:52.95 and 3:51.62, respectively.
Running with able-bodied athletes for much of his life, he credits his team for much of his success so far, being thrust into the para-athletic spotlight and driving him to be better so that there can be more attention and resources for more para-athletes to get into the sport.
“I had Carla Nicholls, Mike van Tighem, Heather Hennigar and some really great family and friends,” says Riech. “I never go into anything to break records, I just want to evolve as a person, as a runner and to be the best person as I can.”
“So many people before me have played such a huge role [to grow the Paralympic movement], so I’m just trying to do my part in it and if something happened to my teammates, I would love for there to be resources for them to use and not have to wait, like me until I’m 23 years old, to really even know about the Paralympics.”
As for next steps to growing the awareness of the Paralympic movement, Riech says it comes down to educating everyone about the talents and abilities of each athlete. “We are high-performance athletes as well,” Riech says. “Not being in awe because of our disability, but because we are able to compete at an extremely high level.”
Riech has also started his own podcast segment, Strides with Graywolf, to tell the stories of para-athletes, in hopes of learning from and sharing different perspectives.
As the countdown is set at one year again, Riech chooses only to see the positives to the Tokyo 2020 delay. Given the time to get better, he’s doing all he can so that if and when the time comes to show the world what he and the rest of Canada’s para-athletics team has to give, they’ll be ready.
“I don’t want to put a cap on myself, I just want to run as fast as I can,” says Riech. “At the Paralympics, I’m just going to go for it, hopefully set a world record run. If someone’s going to beat me, I just want to make sure that they really work for it and as a competitor, that’s what we all want.”
Finishing the sentence during our interview, “In 2021, Nathan Riech will _____,” Riech put it simply: “be Paralympic champion.”