Canada's Nate Riech earns 1,500 gold in dominant fashion in his Paralympic debut

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Nate Riech was nauseous with nerves before his Paralympic debut Saturday. His right leg was feeling worse than it normally does.

"Warming up I felt probably the worst I've ever felt. So there was definitely some anxiety, my leg just didn't seem to be working properly," Riech said.

"I was like sick, going-to-throw-up nervous and I don’t get that nervous for many races. Obviously, this one's a big one. But I think I scared the crap out of my coach (former national team middle-distance runner Heather Hennigar) because I came to her and I was like, 'I feel horrible.'"

Riech needn't have worried. The 26-year-old from Victoria, an emerging star in Canadian track and field, obliterated the field in winning the 1,500 metres in his Paralympic debut in Tokyo on Saturday.

Riech took the lead with two-and-a-half laps to go, and glanced over his shoulder with 50 metres remaining to ensure nobody was close. No one was. Riech -- pronounced 'reesh' -- won by nearly 50 metres, crossing in a Paralympic record of three minutes 58.92 seconds. He let out a roar at the finish line, flexing his arms.

"I wanted to enjoy the last 200 metres if I could, I think I definitely did that last 50 metres and yeah, there was definitely yelling (at the finish line). I'm sure there's some pictures that my buddies are going to make fun of me for," he said with a laugh.

Riech's gold was Canada's 21st medal in Tokyo. Brent Lakatos of Dorval, Que., who has four silver track medals in Tokyo, is Canada's lone competitor Sunday. He'll race the marathon hours before carrying Canada's flag into the closing ceremony.

Despite his dominance, Riech is relatively new to Paralympic sport. He ran NCAA track at Furman University and South Alabama, despite a brain injury suffered as a child that impaired movement on the right side of his body -- hence, his issues with his right leg Saturday.

Riech was golfing with friends in Phoenix, where the family lived, when he was just 10. They briefly took shelter from the sun under a tree while allowing a group to play through. Riech was hit by a line drive from 150 yards out. Riech called his mom Ardin Tucker to pick him up, and by the time they reached the hospital, Riech's face was drooping, and he'd lost the movement of half his body.

Doctors told Tucker they weren't certain he'd survive.

On Saturday, Riech reflected on frightening time.

"I felt like I got too concentrated on winning gold (in Tokyo), so my sport psychologist and I came up with: just try to make that 10-year-old me who was paralyzed in a hospital bed proud," Riech said. "That was my goal and I think I did that."

Riech made his Para sport debut in spectacular fashion in 2018, breaking the world record in both the 800 and 1,500 in his first international event. In this past year alone, he's broken his own 1,500 world record three times (it's currently 3:47.89), and shattered the 5,000 mark. He credited his consistency in training and ability to stay injury-free, partly because the COVID-19 pandemic prevented Canadian athletes from competing a lot.

Riech was a talented young athlete in several sports before his injury, and there was little question he'd still grow up to be an athlete -- his entire family is steeped in sports excellence. Tucker was a pole vaulter on Canada's national team. His dad Todd Riech, who grew up on the Flathead-Kootenai reservation in Montana, was the only Native American on the U.S. team -- he threw javelin -- at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

His stepdad Ben Tucker was a pitcher for the San Francisco Giants. His grandfather Jim Harrison played in the NHL for Toronto, Boston, Edmonton and Chicago. His grandmother Liz Harrison rode equestrian for Canada while his uncle Trevor Harrison played rugby for Canada.

Since the pandemic prevented family were permitted to travel to Tokyo, Riech's first call Saturday was his mom, whose encouragement saw him take up Paralympic running. She'd hosted family for a viewing party at her home just outside Atlanta.

"My mom is who I'm probably missing the most," Riech said. "She's been a part of it all, and we have a very special relationship."

Tokyo held special significance for Riech as an Indigenous athlete. American Billy Mills, from the Oglala Sioux tribe, won the Olympic 10,000 metres in the same city in the 1964 Olympics. Riech said Mills was a supporter of his father.

"I met Billy Mills when he gave out awards at one of my high school cross-country meets in Arizona. So, it's been really special (being in Tokyo), it would have been awesome to have (Mills) here," Riech said.

"My middle name GrayWolf, I've always thought it was a true honour, it's something I definitely take a lot of pride in."

While Riech heads home with gold-medal memories, he said his favourite moment of the Games had nothing to do with his race. His friend Zach Gingras, who's also his roommate back in Victoria, climbed the medal podium in the 400 earlier in the Games, lopping two seconds off his personal best.

"It was the emotion after Zach got bronze. I'm not someone who cries and I just bawled my eyes out. Yeah, it was special. We've just become just close, good friends," Riech said.

While there was no 800 or 5,000 metres in Riech's category in Tokyo, he hopes that either one is added to the program three years from now for the Paris Paralympics.

Liam Stanley of Victoria raced to fifth in the same 1,500 final as Riech, which combined T37 and T38 categories. Stanley's time of 4:06.95 was a Paralympic record for a T37 runner -- which is a greater level of impairment than Riech's T38 category.

"I executed the race the way I wanted to execute it. I just didn't have the finish that the guys ahead of me had," said Stanley. "I'm proud of the effort I put in and if I wasn't going to medal, I was going to walk away from here with a record. It's a really big achievement."

Renee Foessel of Orangeville, Ont., finished fourth in the women's discus at a rain-drenched Olympic Stadium. Jenn Brown of Calgary was eighth.

"The pouring rain was very difficult but we went in prepared for the elements, we had a game plan, and we executed it the best we could," Foessel said. "I was hoping to achieve a better result but when it comes to the day, you have to go out there and do the best you can.

"Today, unfortunately, that was just the best I could do."

Austin Smeenk of Oakville, Ont., was fifth in his 800 final while Thomas Normandeau of Peace River, Alta., was sixth place in the 400.

Canada's women's sitting volleyball team finished a best-ever fourth after a 3-1 loss to Japan in the bronze-medal game.

"Coming into this tournament, our goal was to be in a medal match, and we did that, but fourth was never going to be enough for us," said team captain Danielle Ellis. "I do believe that we came and showed the world that we are deserving of our place here at the Paralympics and now we're ready to go home and work hard to earn our spot at the podium in Paris 2024."

Three Canadian canoe athletes made finals in their Paralympic debuts. Mathieu St-Pierre of Shawinigan, Que., was fifth in his 200-metre event. Brianna Hennessy of Ottawa was eighth in the KL1 200 kayak while Andrea Nelson of Markham, Ont., was eighth in the women's KL2 200 final.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 4, 2021.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

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