Nate Riech is running for much more than medals and records.
The reigning Paralympic and world champion from Victoria is at the top of his sport after a meteoric rise that saw him break records and shine on the brightest stage. But for Riech, being a Para athlete is about more than just personal achievements.
Riech’s motivation to succeed is rooted in a mission to inspire other people with traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) to be the kind of athlete role model they didn’t have growing up.
While Riech, 28, admired able-bodied stars like Kobe Bryant growing up, he has always wanted to be that figure for others facing similar challenges.
“For me, growing up, I didn’t really see athletes with traumatic brain injuries,” Riech told CBC Sports. “I looked up to a lot of great athletes like Kobe, but part of my motivation was that I want to be that athlete that when kids have TBI or cerebral palsy [cerebral palsy]. It’s like wow, look what Nate did for his own career.
“That was my first goal going into Paralympic sport, to motivate and inspire the next generation.”
The middle distance runner suffered a traumatic brain injury at age 10 while golfing with friends, when a golfer from another group accidentally hit him in the back of the head with a shot from 150 yards away.
The injury affects the right side of Riech’s body, placing him in the T38 Para athletics classification. T38 is for athletes with low-grade coordination problems in the lower trunk and legs, whole body, or one side.
Riech is set to defend his men’s 1500m T38 world title on July 17 at the Para Athletics World Championships in Paris, where he will also attempt to retain his Paralympic crown next summer.
CLOCK | For Canadian athletes ready for the World Para Athletics Championships:
Riech captured his world title in 2019 during a phenomenal debut in Dubai and is set to race again in the French capital.
“It’s definitely important to get there, but I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say I’m going to win,” Riech said. “That’s really why I go and that’s why I train so hard.
Riech began competing internationally after moving to Victoria, BC, in 2018 to train at the Canadian Sport Institute (CSI) Pacific. She set T38 world records in the men’s 800 and 1500 events that same year at the World Para Athletics Grand Prix in Berlin.
Riech dropped his 1500 record twice in 2019 and again in 2021, which currently stands at 3:47.89. He also holds the world record for 5,000 meters, also set in 2021.
‘That’s why I’m doing all these things’
His achievements have already served as a powerful inspiration, with a young athlete from Norway now competing on the international stage after admiring Riech.
Skjalg Kongssund, a T38 racer with cerebral palsy, sent Riech an Instagram message when he was 13 to let him know he was a “huge inspiration”. Riech encouraged him to pursue his dream, and this year, the 17-year-old lined up alongside his inspiration at the Dubai Grand Prix.
Stories like that add fuel to Riech’s fire as he continues to reach new heights on the track.
“That’s why I’m still in the sport. That’s why I’m still doing it,” Riech said. “That’s why I wake up at 7 am alone every morning to go train.
It could be the first of many inspirational stories stemming from Riech’s journey as he continues to break new ground at the highest level of Para athletics.
“When you look at the journey he had to go on and how tireless he was in his quest to come back, he was told on several occasions that there were things that would not be possible to achieve in his lifetime and he knocked all of that out.” said Heather Hennigar, his trainer since 2018.
“He wants people, anyone who might be in his situation, to know that challenges can be overcome.”
CLOCK | Riech wins world title and sets meeting record in 2019:
Riech comes from an impressive line of athletes, but has paved his own path by turning a life-changing injury into a triumph story.
His grandfather Jim Harrison played in the NHL for Toronto, Chicago, and Boston. His father, Todd, competed in the javelin for the US at the 1996 Olympics, while her mother, Ardin Tucker, pole vaulted for Canada.
“Obviously my injury was super tough and the biggest thing that’s ever happened to me, but I’m really happy it happened because it taught me a lot of things. It allowed me to pave my own path which is completely different,” Riech. saying.
You struggle to get a shoe deal
Despite all the success, Riech has been unable to land a shoe sponsor, something that could provide even more exposure and help share his journey with others facing similar challenges.
It is also something he has always dreamed of.
“That’s always been a bucket list thing for me,” Riech said. “My biological father was sponsored by Nike and Adidas, so he always wanted those.”
Riech shared a denied sponsorship request on Twitter earlier this year, something that was nothing new to him.
I have been looking for a shoe sponsor for several years, no matter where I apply, it never happens. I’m definitely not frustrated with ON, I think they’re one of the best brands out there, but I’m definitely a little sick of companies saying they want to support “For Athletes”. pic.twitter.com/doiFKHkPzW
“When I entered the Paralympic sphere, they told me: ‘You have to win these races.’ Perfect. I checked all of that. But still, I talk to them and it’s ‘Oh, your story isn’t good enough. You don’t have enough followers.'”
But if the past is the prologue, Riech will remove that goal from his list like all the previous ones and continue to add new ones.
“One of the great things about Nate is that he sets goals, but then once he achieves them, he’s like, ‘Well, I had this goal, too.’ You don’t rest on your laurels,” Hennigar said.