Paralympic champion Riech meets and races Kongssund, a teenage runner he inspired

Nate Riech received a message four years ago from 13-year-old Skjalg Kongssund, an aspiring Para runner from Norway. This month, at the Dubai 2023 World Para Athletics Grand Prix, they competed in the same race and even shared the podium 17 Mar 2023
Two male athletes posing for a photograph.
Riech, right, won the men's 1,500m T38 race at the Dubai 2023 Grand Prix in February while Kongssund took bronze.
ⒸNate Riech
By Ayano Shimizu | The IPC

Nate Riech still remembers a message he found in his Instagram inbox back in 2019. It was from a teenage boy from Norway who dreamed of competing in Para athletics just like the Canadian athlete.

In the short message, Skjalg Kongssund wrote: “I’m a 13-year-old runner, and I am born with cerebral palsy (T38) and you are a great inspiration for me”.

Riech replied and the two runners exchanged a few texts.

“That one always stuck with me,” said Riech, who won the gold medal in the men’s 1,500m T38 at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. “I wasn’t too sure if I was going to ever meet him or race him because I was quite a bit older than him. I assumed I would be out of the sport by the time he was at the senior level.

“I just tried to encourage him to go chase that crazy dream. That seemed crazy to me, and I’m sure it seemed crazy to him at the time.”

Four years later, Riech, now 28, found a familiar name on the start list of the men’s 1,500m T38 race at the Dubai 2023 Grand Prix, which took place between 26 February and 1 March 2023. 

The two athletes competed in the same race and even shared the podium, with Riech winning gold and Kongssund, who is now 17 years old, taking bronze. 

Crazy dream

In 2019 Kongssund started looking at the possibility of being classified in order to compete at official Para athletics events. He began following the sport closely and found Riech, who won the gold medal at the World Championships and the Parapan American Games that year.

Kongssund competed in his first international race in 2021. @Runar Steinstad

“I saw that he was the new guy and he ran very fast. I was looking for someone I could look up to who was like me,” Kongssund said about what prompted him to send his first message to Riech.

“It was cool that someone like him was in the sport and doing something great. He is very good and it was fantastic.”

While Kongssund took part in his first international competition in 2021, the two athletes did not have the chance to meet in person. 

Instead, they occasionally wrote to each other on social media and Kongssund remembers congratulating Riech after his victory at Tokyo 2020.

“I want to motivate and inspire kids. But I don’t really see myself as (someone) who is like, ‘Look up to Nate, he’s accomplished so much’ because at the end of the day, I’m just trying to achieve all of my goals that I have set for me,” said Riech, who sustained a brain injury when he was 10 years old that affects the right side of his body.

“It was very weird when he said that I inspire him. But that’s definitely why I’m still in the sport,” he added. “I remember being 10 and not seeing any kid who had traumatic brain injury and moved like me and had to relearn how to talk, walk and all of these things.”

Racing a hero

After arriving in the United Arab Emirates in February for the World Para Athletics Grand Prix, Riech found out the day before his race that Kongssund was also set to compete. 

“I was sitting with my teammate Tom Normandeau in T47 and I usually don’t look at the heat sheets or the start list. I just don’t really care, I’m trying to execute my race,” Riech said. “Then (Normandeau) was mentioning, ‘There’s this guy from Norway’, and I was like, ‘All right, hold on. Let me see’, and (Kongssund) popped up and I was like, ‘No way’.”

Riech contacted Kongssund and asked if he was interested in joining him for a shakeout run. The two met and spoke about their experiences in the sport as they prepared together. 

In their first-ever race against each other, Riech crossed the finish line with a time of 4:13.06, followed by Algeria’s Abdelkrim Krai (4:14.40). Kongssund came third with 4:34.23.

“I remember the race started and (Riech) didn’t go that fast from the beginning. The first lap was kind of slow for me also so after the first 100 metres, I was beside Nate,” Kongssund said. “I was next to him in the same lane for a couple of seconds and I remember thinking, ‘OK, I’m here. What am I going to do?’”

While Kongssund’s race time was not close to his personal best, the teenage athlete is glad he got to run alongside one of his heroes.

“I remember we were taking a shakeout jog after the race together. And then we got to the medal ceremony and got our medals,” Kongssund said. “It was cool to be beside him in such a meet. It was a nice experience.

Riech, left, made his Paralympic debut at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games where he won gold in the men’s 1,500m T38. @Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Sharing the podium

The medal ceremony gave Riech and Kongssund another reason to cherish their time in Dubai. When the athletes stood on the podium, the presenter mistakenly switched their names when announcing the medal winners.

“They said, ‘The third place goes to Nate Riech from Norway’ and when we came to first place, they were like, ‘First place, Canada, Skjalg Kongssund’. We had a good laugh after that,” Kongssund said.

Riech also recalled making a joke afterward. 

“I slowly tapped him on the back, (saying) ‘I go for one run and they’re already mixing us up. Hmm’. I got a big laugh after that, but it was really cool to be up there (on the podium) with him,” Riech said.

An inspiration

While the race in Dubai was the first time he faced the Paralympic champion, Kongssund hopes that they will have more chances to compete together, including at the Paris 2023 World Para Athletics Championships in July.

“I hope I can make it but I need to do the work to get there,” Kongssund said. “We exchanged shirts (in Dubai). I got his shirt, but I didn’t have any with me so I need to go to Paris because he needs my shirt.”

In addition to being a Paralympic champion, Riech is also a world and Parapan American Games champion. @Naomi Baker/Getty Images

Riech also has high hopes for the teenage athlete as the sport is becoming more and more competitive.  

“It’s cool to know (Kongssund), and now I can actually keep tabs on him more. I feel like a DM (direct message) can connect two athletes but (it’s better) when you meet them in person and see what they’re like,” Riech said.

“He runs really well so I think it’s just a matter of time before he runs really fast. Sometimes, it just takes an accumulation of training to really have things click,” he added. “I’m really hoping that’s what happens to him.”