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Canada's Riech races virtually alone en route to world record in the 1,500 metres

Nate Riech pumped a fist and let out a loud "Yes!" when he crossed the finish line Saturday. His voice surely carried like a loudspeaker on full volume in the near-empty stadium.

Nate Riech pumped a fist and let out a loud "Yes!" when he crossed the finish line Saturday. His voice surely carried like a loudspeaker on full volume in the near-empty stadium.

Riech shattered his own world record in the 1,500 metres, but a crowd of only 50 people — including the combined five athletes in his race — plus officials, coaches and runners in other events were permitted in the Victoria, B.C., stadium due to COVID-19 health and safety protocols.

Riech didn't mind.

"At the end of the day running is so much for me like meditation, so I don't really notice very much around me," he said.

The 26-year-old Paralympic middle-distance star ran three minutes 52.56 seconds, to shave a whopping four seconds off his previous world record set in 2019.

"That's definitely the most excited about a record ever, for sure," Riech said. "I was just having so much fun.

"My reaction (at the finish line) was a bit over the top, but I was definitely very excited," he added with a laugh. "The last couple of years I couldn't get under 3:55 … it was cool to actually run a race that I thought in my head I was capable of."

Riech and Liam Stanley raced together, but they're in different Paralympic classifications, so it was virtually two separate races within one. Stanley had his own pace-setter, while Riech had two. They'd planned to pace Riech through 1,000 metres, but he asked them to step aside 200 metres early, "and I just kind of took off. 

"Usually I feel horrible at 800 metres, but for some reason I felt great."

Riech will make his Paralympics debut in Tokyo this summer. The six-foot-three runner lost some mobility on the right side of his body when he was hit in the head by a golf ball at age 10. He went on to run NCAA track — against able-bodied competitors — for Furman University and South Alabama. 

He was an instant star in Paralympic track, shattering two world records in his international Paralympic debut in 2018.

He'll only run the 1,500 metres in Tokyo, as the International Paralympic Committee eliminated the 800 and 5,000 for his classification. He hopes to do both the 400 and 1,500 at the 2024 Games.

Riech's Paralympic debut will be different in that likely few or no fans will be permitted amid the global pandemic. But the chance to race in Tokyo holds special meaning for Riech.

"Billy Mills was the first native American to win the Olympic 10,000 metres (at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics) and I'm native American as well," Riech said. 

Riech's dad Todd grew up on the Flathead-Kootenai reservation in Montana, and was the only Native American on the U.S. team — he threw javelin — at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Riech met Mills when he was young and said the Lakota Sioux runner who upset the field to win the '64 Games was a big supporter of his dad's.

"So it's really cool that my first Games is in Tokyo, there is special significance to it," Riech said.

Riech was born in Arizona, but is eligible to compete for Canada as his mom Ardin Tucker was born in the country. She competed for Canada in pole vault.

He and his parents aren't the only athletes in the family. 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, and his uncle Trevor Harrison played rugby for Canada's national team. 

Canadian athletes would normally be travelling abroad in the quest for warm weather at this point of the season, but with travel limited due to border restrictions, Victoria and Vancouver's Lower Mainland are hosting the "Winter Games," a series of track meets to help Canadian athletes hit their Olympic and Paralympic qualifying marks.

Stanley ran a world-leading 4:08.31 in the 1,500 in his Para classification. 

Lucia Stafford missed the women's 1,500 Olympic standard by two seconds, running a personal best of 4:06.86.

World silver medallist Melissa Bishop-Nriagu ran 4:09.36. While Bishop-Nriagu is an 800-metre specialist, her times in other events count toward precious world ranking points, a second route to qualify for Tokyo. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 16, 2021.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press