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Canadian Paralympic gold medallist Nate Riech chases world record as tuneup for Paris

Nate Riech wants to feel pressure.

In the past, big races have affected the Victoria native, if not broken him. His nerves caused him to throw up hours before he became world champion last year. At the Tokyo Paralympics, what he thought was a pre-race muscle issue was likely, in hindsight, also nerves. He won there, too.

But at this summer’s Paris Paralympics, Riech and coach Heather Hennigar are trying to avoid all of that pre-race drama.

Which is why Tuesday – exactly 95 days before Riech races to defend his T38 1,500-metre gold medal — is critical in the Canadian’s training process.

Riech will race at Alumni Stadium in Guelph, Ont., in the Royal City Inferno meet, his first true competition of the season, with his eyes solely set on breaking his world record of three minutes 47.89 seconds. His event is scheduled to begin at 7:55 p.m. ET. You can watch it here.

“I like there being something on the line. Some people don’t like that. I like that pressure. I like that, like ‘Oh I’m gonna qualify or I’m not gonna qualify.’ I feel like you just learn so much from those experiences,” Riech said.

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In this case, most of the pressure is internal, but Riech says he intentionally increased the external factors by inviting media and sponsors. He’s also working privately on a documentary.

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However, there was one pressure the 29-year-old could not control. In late March, ongoing tightness throughout Riech’s right leg — exacerbated by the coordination impairment that affects his right side — caused him to miss about three weeks on the track.

The issue threw off his training schedule to the point that Hennigar discussed pushing back the world-record race. Riech resisted.

“The Paralympic final doesn’t get to be moved. It doesn’t matter how good I feel or how bad I feel,” he said.

Riech is confident the tightness won’t linger that far. His uncle, Trevor Harrison, is a physiotherapist who’s helped with injury recoveries for NBA stars such as Blake Griffin and the late Kobe Bryant, and has kept Riech nearly injury-free since he became an elite Paralympic runner in 2019.

In a way, the issue could be perceived as a blessing in disguise — as one more hurdle to be overcome ahead of a big race.

“We’re building this into the process of stepping up to the plate, even when not everything has gone exactly as planned, because at the end of the day — and this is the way Nate’s treating it — things can go sideways stepping onto an Olympic start line as well. And you still need to go put yourself out there and see where you’re at,” Hennigar said.

And so the goal of breaking his own world record stands for Riech, even if his fitness isn’t quite at the level he’d hoped.

He says he can do it.

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“If I fail, I fail. I don’t know if it’s good or it’s bad, but I’m not someone if I fail, I don’t freak out. I know at the end of the day my big goal is to become Paralympic champion again, and do it in style, and this is going to be the biggest preparation,” Riech said.

“I have every intention of breaking it and I will be not happy if I don’t break it. I also know I don’t race until Sept. 7, but it’s really important that I go after it.”

Hennigar said Riech “has a shot” at resetting his mark.

“There’s a little bit of unknown there. I think the important thing is that Nate’s in a good spot. He’s in a good spot right now. He’s had a couple of really good workouts, but it’s important to him to put himself out there and go after it,” she said.

Prior to Guelph, Riech competed in Boston during NCAA regionals at MIT, where he said he was unhappy with his performance and blamed the lack of stakes at a track that saw a soccer game occurring in the middle.

Riech’s main competition in Paris will likely be the same trio of Australians — Reece Langdon, Deon Kenzie and Angus Hincksman — who pushed him at the world championships. But the Canadian won’t see them on the track until the Paralympics.

A group of runners rounds the corner on a track.
Nate Riech leads Australians Angus Hincksman, Deon Kenzie and Reece Langdon on his way to a gold medal at the 2023 Para athletic world championships in Paris. (Getty Images)

Without anyone in North America to truly push Riech, who has already reset his world record multiple times, preparation for Paris becomes that much more difficult.

It’s why the Guelph race has Riech focused on just two things: himself, and the clock.

“We wanted him a bit more bulletproof going in this time around,” Hennigar said. “And so I think a successful race will be to go out and run to his fitness level and put everything out there and feel like he’s handled his own process leading in, whether it be distractions that are coming at him, whether it be feeling a certain amount of pressure and being able to manage his emotional regulation and his focus.”

As for the world record?

“I’m going with every intention of breaking it.”

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