Nate Riech on Player's Own Voice podcast transcript
Anastasia: The most amazing thing about Nate Riech's Paralympic debut is not that he won gold in the 1500 metres. He already owned the world record, so that shouldn't have shocked anyone. But immediately before the race, during his warm up, Nate's right leg just stopped working. Did he panic? Not really. Time instead to go through a familiar routine to reboot his nervous system.
Such is life for athletes with traumatic brain injuries. The term is overused, but Nate is an inspiration and I am delighted to connect with him today. It's player's own voice. I'm Anastasia Bucsis.
Ten years ago, almost 10 years ago, you said you were certain of three things that you wanted to do. You wanted to compete at the highest level of sport. You wanted to shed light on your injury and you wanted to advocate for resources at local children's hospitals. So let's go through all three of those and see how you're doing. I suspect that you're doing quite well because again, you got a gold medal around your neck and holy smokes,Tokyo 2020, you are a Paralympic champion now in the 500 metre and you crushed it. You were the clear winner, to put it politely. How was that experience?
Nate: I didn't really think about the race until three days before the race. Like, I'm a very checklists person, and so I had things to check off up until three days to go. And then I remember three days to go and I was like, Holy smokes, I have nothing to check off. Like, I just have like, eat breakfast with my buddy Tom and watch some races. That was it. And that was when I got really nervous and started thinking of what happens if I don't win. You know, I think, you know, the outcome, not actually the process.
And I talked to my sports psychologist, John Coleman, who's been a godsend to me and my career. And we just came up with like, let's make the 10 year old kid motionless in the hospital bed proud. And for some reason, when we talked about that, like I broke down and cried uncontrollably. Like I've never cried like that before in my life. Then I had this sense of calmness after that, and I was like, All right, any time I felt anxious or nervous, I would just repeat that in my head. And it seemed to make me really, really calm.
And then I didn't know I'd have another speed bump, which happened in the warm up my right leg. Usually it doesn't work well, but it was really, really not working well. And I don't know if the nervousness was masking that or… because I have a pretty good internal clock and like, I know how fast I'm running with out a watch. And I had, like, no idea. And I felt horrible and I scared the crap out of my coach because I said Heather, I feel horrible.
Anastasia: Do you do you think that was psychosomatic? just because you're so nervous and you're like, Oh my God, I got to go right now and I don't feel good.
Nate: Yeah, I had … I had no idea what it was like. I I assume it's like my, you know, the brain, you can't judge. It's like, it's just kind of, some days are good, some days are bad and some days are really, really bad. And that seemed to be one of the really, really bad days. And thankfully, I had this decision. Do I tell Heather or do I not tell her? And so my decision, my thought process was if I don't tell her and I suck in this race, I'm going to really regret not telling her to do things or try and wake up my nervous system. I can only wake up so much with my brain injury. But so we just did some 40 metre like, pure speed kind of sprints to kind of get it going? And that that never really seemed to go away until I stepped on the line, which is not a bad time for it to go away. You know, it was pouring rain. I heard a lot of the competitors not being happy about the rain and to me, that was a competitive advantage, like I'm from Victoria, British Columbia. So it's like, man, this is this is like a Tuesday. So yeah, it went really well.
The plan was at 400 metres to just go, and I didn't expect someone to pace me through the first 400 metres. And they did. And I kind of took off and remember looking up at the screen at like seven hundred metres and there was no one around
Sound up race announcer the 1500m specialist out of the University of South Alabama. he's on his way to win himself a Paralympic gold medal to add to the world record and this is a dominant performance for the Canadian.
Nate: I couldn't believe I kept looking around. My mom was getting really mad at me when we talked after, like, Stop looking around! But I thought the screen was lying to me because I did the same exact move I did at worlds, and I thought they would have seen it coming because it worked. And that was my thought process. And yeah, it just worked. And yeah, it ran all the way hard to the finish line. So at the last 50 metres, and I really kind of enjoyed that and tried to sink in, though, like how proud my grandpa Jim, who played in the NHL for many teams for 12 years, like how proud he is to be Canadian. And I think that's kind of what went in my head that last 50 metres. And then of course, I did all that screaming, which I thought I wasn't screaming, but I was screaming. And I was like, all my buddies are going to make so much fun of me for that.
Anastasia: Oh, I. I think there were 35 million Canadians screaming alongside you. Yeah, it's just so epic. I mean, it wasn't the fastest race. You ran 3:58. And your world record is 3:47. Was that due just to the rain, or do you think you know …what ultimately did happen to your right leg?
Nate: Yeah, no, I didn't really notice it too much like I'm. I get very like locked in when I race and I don't really like even I've had like a hurt hamstring. And when I ran 3:47, I had a pretty tight hamstring before the race and I didn't feel great during the race. I mean, that's just, I don't know. I like I feel like I just go to a place like through my grey wolf mentality where I just go to like this just place where I'm willing to go through anything and see, I didn't really feel that. The track surface was incredibly fast. I just think I would have needed some, some more competition, someone really pressing me. I mean, I definitely had a lot left with three hundred meters to go. But yeah, I just kind of did what I had to do to win.
And you know, it's it's just kind of like a car race. It's like, it's like times really don't mean much. Times don't mean that much in general. Like if I compete and if I try and win my race, our fast time eventually is going to come in. So my parents always told me to be competitive versus, like worrying about time. And so that's kind of where that thought thought process came from.
Anastasia: Well, it worked. I mean, your tactics were perfect, so it was honestly just so dominant. You said grey wolf mentality. Just quickly. Where does that come from? I know that's your nickname, but like in 20 seconds, how did that nickname get birthed?
Nate: Yeah. So it's actually my middle name. It's from the Flathead Reservation and hot springs just outside of Hot Springs Montana on the Flathead River. Now they renamed themselves to, I can't remember the full name, but yeah, it's one of the elders in that tribe gave me my full name, and that's where it comes from, and I've always thought it was the coolest thing ever. Hence, every social media thing that you can find on me has grey wolf in it. Yeah, I guess I like it a little bit.
Anastasia: It's been a few weeks since the Paras have winded down. Where are you in your competition calendar? Are you just like still chicken wings and beer stage of the games hangover?
Nate: So I'm more of a rum and coke and doughnut kind of person. OK, so definitely way too many doughnuts. I feel like I've probably gained around 10 pounds, and I'm pretty sure that's all doughnut. And so I just started yesterday. I went for my first run. My body was just feeling horrible, and I do like really long corrective programme before and after I run. And so that was kind of my intention to just start doing 20 minutes every other day. And then on the off days, I'll do like I like the stationary rower or the rower that my parents just got in in their basement. So that was fun. So it's pretty much just anything that's fun at this point. We're going to the U.S. Virgin Islands on Wednesday, so I'm sure I'm sure I might go back into a state of celebration. And so instead of going, my parents couldn't go to Tokyo. They wanted to plan something in celebration. I'm happy that things went well because if it didn't go well, that would have been really awkward. So, yeah, that's that's kind of our big celebration. And things didn't really set in for me until I got home with my family. So I'd say then when I saw my girlfriend, I went to Whistler before I came down to Georgia. And then, yeah, now it's kind of really set in when I walked in the door from the airport. All of my family, aunts and uncles were all in my house and just screaming. And it was it was. It is a pretty cool experience.
Anastasia: You better have a million and one pina coladas when you're there. All right. So I think you've done pretty, pretty well on that first category. Compete at the highest level again. Paralympic champion world record holder. Not too shabby, my friend.
Injury question: So many people gravitate to your story, I think, because. It does sound like it was a freak accident, but it's also so relatable because so many people can imagine it happening. You know, I was just golfing. I wasn't golfing with the sharpest golfers and, you know, I almost got hit. I'm sure that you're sick of talking about it a little bit, but what I'd really like for you to do is just talk about, you know, our understanding of brain injuries and how that has evolved over time.
Nate: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I think it's it's it's interesting and now funny because I'm finding that it's it's like everyone has a story of either of them getting hit or almost getting hit or a friend of theirs getting hit. So I think, like, yeah, off the bat, that's why so many people can connect to it. And, you know, I think it was really tough for me after I got injured. I was a 10-Year-Old hearing: You'll never walk. The Olympics are not in your future. And I'm a very like, Eff You, bring it on kind of mentality. That's how my mother is. And so everyone says, I'm like her. So I guess the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. So that's not that's not very surprising, I think for me. One of the hardest things to overcome was that disability that others would put on me: you can't do Spanish because it's too hard. You can't graduate from high school because it's too hard. There's no way you're going to college. And then I stuttered really bad.
There's no way you can never public speak. And then what's the first thing that my mom does? Like, almost three months out of the hospital,she puts me in front of a crowd of 300 people. Speaking at a golf tournament. She says, like, this is a really important thing to learn and and I think you can be really good at it. And that's also where the giving back thing came. I think I figured out while I was in the hospital how all of other people's fundraising impacted me. And so I was like, if if I had such a positive experience in the hospital or as positive you can have because they gave back then I want other kids to have a similar experience. So I need to give back. And it doesn't matter if I make a one percent impact on that or point one. And it really doesn't matter. And to go back to like, my doctors, they wrote a medical journal on me because I was in such new territory that they'd never, my specific doctors had never seen someone recover the way I did, and I think I just had going back to my family. It just wasn't an option. Like, we never knew if I would actually play sports again, but the no option was to not try. And I would feel like, like Kobe Bryant talked about small and large failures. it's OK to have a small failure of just like not winning a championship or not walking again. But it's a big failure and something that you regret for the rest of your life if you actually don't try.
And so, yeah, I just think this summarises I think people put the true disability on you. It is the cap others put on you. And so I just really had to kind of learn how to advocate for myself, which was really tough because I stuttered so that I was. I hate throwing the word bullied, but I was made fun of a lot growing up for that, and I definitely struggled with that. And then just, you know, finding sport again, which was important. I didn't know if I would be High-Performance, but I just wanted to find sport again.
Anastasia: Well, you found it. What are you doing right now for children's hospitals, though? I mean, you keep yourself real busy.
Nate: Yeah. So it's it's it's been tough because up in Canada, a lot of the children's hospitals, because I didn't go to their children's hospital, it's hard to get involved. So that's that's kind of been a bummer. I don't care if it's just volunteering and doing homework with the kids and playing video games like I was always. People came to the hospital with me, professional baseball players or baseball players that were doing rehab, and that's what they did with me. And so in Victoria I haven't yet been able to make that work. When I go to Phoenix, one of my best friends. Erin Broughton. She works at Phoenix Childrens Hospital. We were on the Children's Health Advisory Board together, so she always will get me in to go to events with them and things like that. And so that's always fun. It's it's always anything, fundraising wise I love to do. And obviously golf tournaments kind of hit home, and I think it maybe helps them get in their pockets a little more when something so close and they can imagine it happening to their kid or to them or their family. I think that's where maybe I can help the most.
Anastasia: I think you've far surpassed your three life goals that you set a decade ago, competing at the highest level, advocating for brain injuries and giving back.
So I'm going to move on here because you're a champ. You've said family about 15 million times. Can you just name a few of the significant athletes in your family because you are cut from a pretty decent athletic cloth, my friend?
Nate: Yeah, yeah. I guess a few of them have done all right for themselves. So my dad? All right. Yeah, I know my dad. Todd Riech was a 1996 Olympian in the javelin NCAA record holder, our former NCAA record holder. My mom, Arden Tucker, was Canadian indoor record holder at one time national champion in the pole vault in 2000. My grandpa, Jim Harrison, who most people, most Canadians will be excited about played with Wayne Wayne Gretzky, his rookie year in Edmonton, played for the Leafs, played for the Blackhawks. And a couple more teams. And he scored three goals in 24 seconds and 10 points in one game. So I guess he's all right. And my cousin, George, was fifth at the Olympic Games and then my stepdad played professional baseball he was roommates with Aaron Boone at USC, who's the Yankees manager and played with Jack Jones and some of the best of the best. That's that's that's a couple.
Anastasia: Is it a good thing or a curse to be born into such an illustrious sporting family? When you were growing up, did you ever feel feel like, Oh, I have to win the Super Bowl or the Stanley Cup? Did you feel that pressure?
Nate: I think the timing was perfect for me when I grew up. Like I grew up when they were all still being athletes, like my mom, like I said, once in two thousand that she earned national title. And I was born in 95. So I always tell people it's a joke, but it's true. Like I didn't know doing wind sprints in the street at like six, five or six a.m. wasn't normal until I was in second or third grade. I was like, that's what we would do on weekends. Everyone would line up and we'd all race with all my parents, friends and them. And that was just like, super normal. I feel like some parents have to preach like dedication and hard work, and I have hard work from them. I mean, a lot of stuff came naturally to me, so I didn't have to work incredibly hard. I enjoyed playing baseball and that was my sport and I was out there for hours. Then obviously, I think I got a, I would say, like a Ph.D. in working hard and accountability after my injury. Yeah. But I think for me, I don't know how my siblings, we haven't really had that conversation. I wonder how they feel. But for me, it was ideal. I felt, but I was like getting to learn from people who have doctorates in High-Performance every day, and there was about 30 of them. Everyone who I was around. So, yeah, I feel super fortunate and lucky.
Anastasia: Can you guys just have fun like hacking around, though? Or is that like, no, This is competition. It's go time, baby. Can you play backyard badminton without being hyper competitive?
Nate: if you met my parents on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday? I don't even think you would think that they did sports. They had so much fun.
Anastasia: Oh, I like them. I like them.
Nate: They are always playing. It's doing push ups, if your football team scores points, it's I mean, it's it's everything. It's that's one thing that I've tried to learn from my parents is whenever you achieve something big, they always say, take time to celebrate. I am not necessarily someone who loves to celebrate these things. And my mom forces me to. Almost like: Nate, you really… this doesn't happen every day. You really need to enjoy it. And so that's that. That's the one thing that's probably been the hardest thing for me to learn is to enjoy it. But they've done a really good job. I didn't drink till I was twenty two. And so then when I did started liking rum and coke is always my stuff that whenever I get TB or something, it's like, enjoy, like at least have one drink and just enjoy it. And so I was just so like laser focussed from a young age. It definitely if anyone knows me well, I'm a goofball. Like, I just I'm so sarcastic, especially when I play golf like I. I suck at golf, but I chirp like I shoot sixty two. So it's trying to play the the Michael Jordan sports psychology to try to get into your brain. So because that's the only way I can win. .
Anastasia: You wrote that you essentially had a little bit of an identity crisis around your time in the NCAA because you didn't meet some of your own super high expectations for yourself. You were literally saying or asking yourself like, Who am I? What was that all about?
Nate: Yeah, I mean, I think the things I thought I would of accomplished my freshman year, my my first year in college, I didn't accomplish my entire time in college, but at the same time, I failed so much in college. And I think it was amazing how much I failed. I think that's why I was ready for the Paralympic stage because I failed so much. And yeah, I just I think it's I think it's hard to not I don't want to say show up because I was in the shadow of any of my parents.
My parents have done such a great job of making sure that I'm my own person. But just like, I always wanted there to be a twist in my career, I didn't want to be a pole vaulter or the javelin or… the only sport I want to do was maybe play baseball like my stepdad. But yeah, I just I just wanted to make sure that I was going down my path and not just going down a path just to go down a path just because it seemed fun or because that's what my family does.
And so I've always, with my brain injury, it just made me want to make an impact. Or or maybe I just remember how I felt like, how hopeless I felt when I was 10. And I remember when my brother, Benji was 10. I couldn't imagine him being motionless in a hospital bed. And so I just wanted to in any way give back in that way. And I think a big part of it also my thing I will always be most proud of is being a good older brother to my four siblings. That will always be above any medal. I was telling them to chase their dreams, but I wasn't doing. I wasn't going to do that, so I needed to look myself in the mirror like David Goggins talks about and be honest, like, like, not not put myself down, but I really respect honesty. And so I needed to be honest with myself, and I think that's where I came from.
Anastasia: So when you say you weren't living up to your own dreams, though, are you weren't, you know, chasing your own dreams? And that was what you shared to motivate others? How did you kind of make that switch to chase your own dreams?
Nate: When I got involved in the Paralympic Movement, I always loved being a part of a team at Furman and South Alabama. I always felt like I wasn't good at cross-country, but I always enjoyed running cross-country because I was never going to be the number one runner in college. But I felt like I could be a very pivotal, like Fifth Man and we could, and we had had such great team-mates at both schools that like we would create this bond and we would, and we just enjoyed working hard together.
And so I felt like the Paralympic Movement was so much bigger than it is so much bigger than myself, and I could hopefully help motivate and inspire the next generation of Paralympic athletes. And that's something that I could like, sit back at a bonfire with my siblings and be proud of and be like, like the guy I helped, you know, point one of showing to my kids with traumatic brain injuries that like, once you get hurt, you can still go and accomplish those dreams and goals you set out for yourself.
When you were five or six in school, when they're like, what do you want to be when you grow up? And so I would just hate for that door to close. And I was fearful that the door had closed for myself as soon as you know that. We tried to kick it open. But the doubt is, I mean, if you're human its most likely there,
Anastasia: it's very hard.
Nate: Yeah. And so having a sports psychologist, that's when I think everything changed for me as when I got with John Coleman, I will sing his praises till the day I'm gone.
Anastasia: So then going back to the time in your NCAA career when you were asking, Who am I? Do you have an answer now or is that still a work in progress?
Nate: It's evolved a lot over the years before it was just to be the best. Just be the best and just destroy it. I was like, what I wanted? And I think now it's someone that wants to lead with the character because that's always been something really important to me. I feel like as people, we always know what the right decision is, but sometimes it's hard to actually make the right decision. And I wanted to be someone that my siblings could look up to and be like, Oh, that's my brother. He worked hard. Would I like to make my parents proud? Absolutely. But at the end of the day, like just trying to satisfy that? It's just it's not. It's not not going to work over a long extended period of time. And so I was: let's just do what makes me happy and make that 10 year old boy proud.
Anastasia: And did you make him proud?
Nate: I think so. I yeah, I think so, I think. I remember thinking like, like, Wow, I'm pretty sure he would think that was that was pretty awesome. Definitely. There's definitely some messages I got from certain people that I definitely geek out about. I was like, Man, that was that was pretty cool. I like thinking of that sports nerd sitting in that hospital bed, like how cool he would have thought that was.
Anastasia: I love what you are kind of ripping from Kobe Bryant, the small failures and there's large failures. And even losing world championships is that's just small potatoes. You know, if you're not actually going to follow your dreams. So what's next for you? What does the next 12 months look like for for grey wolf over here?
Nate: So I'll run some cross-country this year.
Anastasia: man, I don't like cross-country. That's too hard. .
Nate: You know I like to go running just get absolutely hammered by Mo Ahmed or Justyn Knight or one of these guys. And so I always like, part of me that needs to get beaten. I need it because then I feel like if you don't, then your ego pops up and I try my best and not have an ego. But I feel like when you step on the track or, you know, kind of part of you has that ego has to come out of love, but that's what makes you succeed. So I think Kobe, Japan in August will be our world champs. And so I'm going to be really focussed on the 5K like the 1500 will be what I run at the World Champs, but we train for the 3k 5k this year and obviously the first of my PB in a very long time in the 1500 and when I had three forty seven on a day where I wasn't feeling that good, I was like, man, I like that. Good things, good things could come! I think, as you know, consistency with the coach is what I had for the first time in a while. Since 2018, I've been with Heather Heininger, and she's, in my opinion, the best coach in the world. Obviously, I'm severely biased.
I just think I have such a great set up and I'm looking to to repeat in 2024. Like I said, if I lost and at the Paralympics this year, I'd want to come back and try and win. And if I won, I would try and repeat in. And of course, this lululemon deal, trying to trying to make me go through 2020. I was like, Come on, guys,
Anastasia: do it for the swag, do it for the swag! I love it.
I started this conversation with a little game of let's evaluate your life goals and where you're at, and I think you're doing pretty good.
Nate: Oh, thank you so much. I mean, it was so cool this year seeing the media coverage at the Paralympic Games. I don't know how it was in 2016, but I've heard it was such a rise from what it was and just feeling the love from all the Canadians and having my guy from CBC out there covering and and trying to tweet at him as as much as I could totry and drive him nuts was super fun and I always like messing with Devin. So yeah, and I just want to say thank you to CBC for everything they do and obviously you Anastasia. Thank you for everything you've done. For me, it's been, it's been a fun journey and I can't wait to keep it going.
Anastasia: It's going and I'm excited for what's next. Peace.
I recorded that chat from my home in Toronto, Nate called in from Atlanta, Georgia. Where the rumour is he has seen Usher drive by his house.
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