Family of athletes key to Canadian runner Riech’s Paralympic success story

Canada’s Nate Riech, who won the men’s 1,500m T38 at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, attributes part of his success to growing up among family members striving for sporting excellence 14 Apr 2023
A close-up image of a male runner competing at Tokyo 2020.
Riech made his Paralympic debut at Tokyo 2020.
ⒸThomas Lovelock/OIS
By Ayano Shimizu | The IPC

Growing up in a family of elite athletes, Nate Riech used to think that every family has a routine of doing wind sprints at 7 in the morning.

His mother is a former pole vault athlete, and Riech was an aspiring baseball player when he was young, inspired by his stepfather who played the sport professionally. His birth father, grandfather and uncles were also elite athletes.

The winner of the men’s 1,500m T38 at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, Riech said that sports played a large part of his life since he was a child and his family helped shape his path as a Paralympic champion.

“Every morning, (my family) would wake up early and train. That was something that they really instilled in me. It was always so much fun,” the 28-year-old athlete said. “We had speed ladder competitions, we had wind sprints down the street to see who was the fastest in the family.

“There wasn’t a night growing up that I didn’t dream about it,” Riech added about competing at the Games.

Riech attributes a big part of his success to his athletic family members. @Naomi Baker/Getty Images

Running as therapy

Riech suffered a brain injury when he was 10 years old while playing golf with his friends. He was hit by a ball in the back of his head and was later diagnosed with a brain injury that affects the right side of his body.

Following his injury, running became Riech’s therapy and he soon fell in love with it. 

“After I got hurt, a pretty big event had just happened and I was trying to deal with it. I stuttered really bad and I never like using the word bully, but I got made fun of a lot,” he said.

“I would drop my lunch almost every day in the cafeteria and when I read out loud in class, people would make fun of me. 

“To be at that age and be different, that was super tough and running was an outlet for me.”

Riech’s breakthrough came in 2019 when he won gold medals in the men’s 1,500m T38 at the World Para Athletics Championships and the Parapan American Games.

Two years later, he made his Paralympic debut at Tokyo 2020, where he won his signature race with a time of 3:58.92.

Family of role models

Riech attributes a big part of his success to his athletic family members and seeing them “do their craft”.

In addition to his mother and stepfather, his birth father has competed in the javelin throw at the 1996 Olympic Games. His grandfather played in the National Hockey League, and one of his uncles also played professional baseball.

“They taught me how to be a professional athlete since I was around seven. It’s one thing telling you what you have to do, but they actually showed me,” the Paralympic champion said. 

“I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, they’re not just talking the talk. They’re actually walking the walk and they don’t really have to talk the talk because I see that every day’.”

Riech said that sports played a large part of his life since he was a child. @Ardin Tucker

Despite having a family of role models, Riech says his mother was his biggest inspiration in sports. 

“Growing up, there was always my mom because she won her Olympic trials in pole vault after having me,” he said. “(She was) someone facing adversity like that. Having a kid, she was still in college. 

“And then, she is national champion and Canadian indoor record holder at the time. It really inspired me.”

Riech’s mother has been his biggest supporter and was also the one who encouraged him after his accident. Riech went back to school the day after he got out of the hospital, and he recalls his mother telling him not to come home early.

“There’s definitely a way to cuddle someone after the injury like that and she pushed me,” he said. 

“The thing that I love about her is that she asks questions. She asked me, ‘What are your goals? What do you want to accomplish?’ And I told her, ‘I want to be an Olympian or a Paralympian and I want to be the best in the world’.

“She knew that's what I wanted. So she knew how to push me to actually achieve that goal,” Riech added. “She was really hard on me at times but looking back, I love it. I'm sure in the moment, I didn't always love it. But we have the greatest relationship possible.”

While his mother was unable to travel to Tokyo and watch his Paralympic debut in person due to the COVID-19 restrictions, she made sure that her son could feel the support of his friends and family in Japan.

She coordinated for all of Riech’s friends and family to write letters to him. Ultimately, he received more than a hundred letters from his uncle who travelled with him to Japan as part of the national team.

“Luckily my mom somehow, once again, saved the day,” Riech said. “I just felt like I had a little bit of home with me. There were also a couple of letters that I read a lot, for sure.”

Riech is looking forward to competing in front of his family at Paris 2024 Paralympic Games, which open in just over 500 days. @Jay Wallace

Gunning for more

With just over 500 days to go until the Paris 2024 Paralympic Games, Riech is looking forward to competing in front of his family in the French capital.

“I want to win gold and I want to set a world record, which is really hard to do at the championships. I don’t know if anyone in our category has ever done that before, so I really want to go and chase that,” he said.

“My family will get to go. From this conversation, you can probably sense how important they are to me. So it would be really cool.”