There are some people destined for a career in sport. From a young age, the competitive spirit is engrained in them, and they live and breathe for their craft. Nate Riech, Canadian Paralympic track athlete and Tokyo gold medalist, is one seemingly made for sport. “Growing up I didn’t know any different. I didn’t know that it was unusual to do wind sprints at 6:00 am with your family and see who’s the fastest,” explains Riech.
With high-performance athletes for parents, that’s no surprise. At one point, Riech seemed set on following his passion for baseball, but a freak accident involving a golf ball to the back of his head left Riech impaired on the right side of his body. “That definitely sent my world into a tailspin and put my world upside down and everything I thought I knew about my life was the opposite,” recalls Riech. Despite having to re-learn to walk, nothing was going to stand in Riech’s way. “At the end of the day, this is my life and I wasn’t going to let someone tell me that I couldn’t do something … that’s not who I am.”
As part of his recovery, Riech was part of the running club in fifth grade, and by eighth grade, he knew that running was turning into a new passion. “Our big goal, my mom and I’s goal, was to get a D1 scholarship. I did that, and it was always setting goals bigger and bigger … I love goals that make me nervous, I always have,” explains Riech.
After two years at Arizona, Riech found the perfect fit at Georgia, where he finished his two final years of school. It was during college that Riech earned his doctorate – “I definitely felt like I got a PhD in how to fail and keep on moving forward,” he reflects. “Honestly, I didn’t accomplish anything that I thought I was going to accomplish in college … I think that’s why I had so much success in the Paralympics right away, because I understood what failure looked like and I wasn’t scared to go after a world record or my personal best.”
A game-changer for Riech was meeting with a sports psychologist in Victoria, British Columbia and recognizing the need for a strong team to surround himself with. Among his team is his coach, Heather Hennigar and his family. “My mom had always said I needed to be coached by a woman. I didn’t really understand why, but I’ve had most of my success with her … our relationship wasn’t easy at first, maybe that fiery background … I want to do it this way, and I think I was not as mature as I wanted to be. I wanted to run fast at all times … which meant really intense workouts, but I couldn’t stay healthy. So, we came up with a plan that involved my uncle, who is on the sports [medicine] side … that was really important, having that kind of integrated model and that allowed me to relax and just compete,” describes Riech.
His mental approach to the sport has also had a large impact on his success. “I’ve definitely learned that trying to run a specific time does not work for me. Just trying to win is what works for me because I feel like you lose so much mental energy every lap, you’re like, oh it’s slow, that’s fast … it’s your mind just like parkouring all over the place and it’s just, for me, not a good approach to have.”
That mentality has certainly worked well for Riech, who broke the 3:50 time in the 1500-meter race, setting a new record. “Nobody in my classification had ever done that and I ran 3:47. I was like, dang that was awesome,” recalls Riech. “The next day I flew home to see my family after I ran 3:47 and I hadn’t seen them for a year and a half. It was like this awesome coming home.”
It’s clear that Riech’s upbringing has left a significant impression on his career as an athlete, and his mom can take credit for his ‘fiery’ drive. “My mom’s a pretty passionate person so I’m sure it comes from her a lot, but she always built up my confidence … I think I’m super lucky that my mom pushed me so hard because you know, there’s two ways after your kid goes through such a severe injury – you can kind of coddle them or push them, but my mom really pushed me,” he reflects.
Riech’s advice for the next generation of athletes reflects his entire journey and the ups and downs that he’s experienced along the way; “Success is a process. You might not see the numbers numerically, but it is there if you stay healthy from year to year.”
Tune in to Episode #130 of The Athletes Podcast to learn more about Nate Riech’s upbringing in an athletic family, the strong women he was raised with, his nutrition and recovery routines and his thoughts on mentoring with Classroom Champions.