OTTAWA — Nate Riech’s brain scan looks like the surface of the moon. There’s a dark crater where the cells that control the right side of his body once were. It’s exactly the size of a golf ball.
Riech was just 10 when he was playing golf with some buddies in Phoenix, where the family lived. A group behind them was playing through, and so Riech and his friends took refuge from the hot sun under a tree to wait. But someone fired a drive from 150 yards away that veered left, hitting Riech in the back of the head.
“It actually hit me so hard it was more of a numbing feeling, a tingly sensation going through my body,” Riech said. “At first, I didn’t honestly know I got hit until my friend was like ‘Dude, you just got hit,’ and we saw a ball bounce off in a weird direction.”
Sitting at Terry Fox Stadium the day after he captured the 1,500-metre Paralympic title at the Canadian track and field championships, and a week after he smashed two world records, the 23-year recounted the day that changed his life.
When Riech called his mom Ardin Tucker that day from the golf course, she figured he might have been feeling the effects of pitching a baseball game the previous night. At worst, maybe he had a concussion. But by the time they reached the hospital, Riech couldn’t move the left side of his body, and his face was drooping. Then he had a seizure.
“The doctors said we can’t tell you what’s going to happen. We don’t know if he’s going to live, we don’t know if he’s going to be paralyzed. We don’t know if we’ll have to do brain surgery,” Tucker said. “That was the hardest obviously, you’re looking at your child and you can’t help him, and he doesn’t know what’s going on either.”
His brain injury left him with paralysis on the left side of his body, and no chance of playing the sports he was just starting to excel in.
“To watch your child, he was very athletic, made all-star baseball teams, had started football, basketball, and we knew he would never be able to play those sports again,” Tucker said. “But at that point, we were just thankful he was alive.”
The running family joke now is that they never knew golf was a contact sport.
Growing up in a family of athletes, Riech took the words “no sports” as a challenge.
Ardin was a pole vaulter on Canada’s national team. His dad Todd Riech threw javelin for the U.S. at the 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 grandma Liz Harrison rode equestrian for Canada. His uncle Trevor Harrison played rugby for Canada and is now a top physiotherapist who has worked with top athletes such as Kyrie Irving and Blake Griffin.
No sports? Not a chance.
Riech decided on middle-distance running, and went on to win a silver medal at the Junior Olympics, and then race NCAA track for Furman University and South Alabama — against able-bodied competitors.
“It was definitely a testing time for me,” said Riech, who at 6-3 is built more like hockey star Connor McDavid than the world’s top middle-distance runners. “My mom always talks about she didn’t know which was I was going to go, either I was going to be super negative or super positive, just because I was a very emotional kid, and luckily, through my genes, a lot of sports came really easy to me.
“I didn’t really have to work as hard as some of the other kids, and so I think I definitely learned how to work hard.”
Working hard meant intense physiotherapy for eight years. He became adept at doing everything left-handed, including writing. But he became so dependent on his left hand that doctors casted his left arm a couple of times to force him to use his atrophying right arm.
Riech, who has dual citizenship, said the reason he chose to compete for Canada rather than the U.S., is because of all those long hours his mom spent with him at treatment sessions.
Tucker had originally talked to her son about Paralympic sports right after his accident, but he’d had his heart set on competing in able-bodied track.
“And he was accomplishing so much, overachieving, and I always knew I had it in my back pocket for him, but he wanted to just keep going, and we saw him keep excelling,” Tucker said. “We said until it got to the point where he couldn’t get any further, let’s let him go accomplish those dreams.”
That point came after graduating from South Alabama. First he had to be classified by the International Paralympic Committee, which happened last month. And then in his first international meet, Riech shattered the world records in the 800 and 1,500 metres at the Berlin Grand Prix last week, shaving a full eight seconds off the 1,500 record with a time of three minutes 57.92 seconds.
His family watched the races unfold online back home in Atlanta.
“We were all watching the computer screen and screaming and yelling at him,” Tucker said.
But if it seems like success comes easy for Reich, it doesn’t. He keeps a gruelling schedule of hours of foam rolling and stretching daily. His rewired brain has to work significantly harder than able-bodied athletes, almost like a rowing eight crew that’s missing a few oarsmen. His brain works so hard to run, his mom said, that it takes him twice as long as an able-bodied athlete to recover.
“I notice it the most in the last lap of a race,” Reich explained. “When I set the 1,500 world record, with 50 metres left I thought I was going down. All of a sudden my hip stopped working, and my arms were flailing.
“Because I have a hole in my head, most people don’t have to think about using the right side of their body, but I have to tell the right side of my body to move, especially my arm, I have to say “use it, use it, use it.” And then late in the race, you don’t want to think about that, you want to be naturally doing it. But I have to constantly think about getting my hip up and driving my knee.”
Tucker said her son’s world record performances were reward for pushing himself so hard for so many years.
“He was always so hard on himself,” she said. “And once he embraced the Paralympics, and embraced the fact that ‘I have overachieved, it’s OK for me to compete against peers that have the same injury as me.’ For him to see how much he really has accomplished, how much he has persevered, how much he has overcome, that was amazing.”
Reich will fly to Belgium on Sunday to race next week.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press