LANGLEY, BC – In a Paralympic year, pressure elevates everything. Every mistake more significant, and every win more jubilant. Still, it is often just one event that can define a career.
In the sweltering heat of Tokyo’s 2021 summer Marissa Papaconstantinou and Nate Reich ran their way to 2020 Paralympic medals. Papaconstantinou, then 21, won bronze in the T64 100-metre, while Reich captured the Paralympic title in the T28 1,500-metre.
“It’s  been chill, I’ve been having a lot of fun with it, and when you’re having fun, that can make for some fast times,” Reich told 49 Sports. “There’s a lot of distractions when it comes to the big races, and I think I’ve learned my lessons in how to race those.”
Over 1,800 athletes will compete at the Bell Canadian Track and Field Championships in Langley, BC. While many of the able-bodied athletes seek a spot at the World Championships or to prep for the Commonwealth Games, the para-athletes have their eyes on personal bests and national titles and prep for next year’s IPC World Championships in Paris, France.
A day before the National Championships begins, Reich and Papaconstantinou are all smiles. 2022 doesn’t have the same weight as 2021, and both are approaching life with a new lens.
For Riech, he returns to B.C. to race as he did in his youth after moving to Georgia from Victoria., while Papacostantinou transitions to a full-time athlete after graduating from university.
“I’m going to shut down the season pretty early this year, maybe one more race after Nationals,” Reich said. “It’s a big one next year in Paris for world championships and then the big shebang [Paralympics] in 2024.”
Living in Georgia, there has been an adjustment period for Reich. While the southern American heat has prepared him for what is likely to be a blistering race day in Langley, the move south has forced adaptations.
“I didn’t realize how much I would miss Victoria until I came back here and ran a PB in the 100m,” he said. “It’s not been a bad move, and this has been my most consistent year so far, which is a good thing.”
Reich, 27, won’t be racing in the para-events in Langley this week. Instead, he’ll go head to head with able-bodied competitors in the men’s 1500m.
“It’s all part of the long-term approach with Paris 2024 as the major goal. I know some people will run as fast as me on the para side, and I’m trying to find the best way to win in Paris, so that’s throwing myself into the fire.”
Racing against NCAA and U SPORTS standouts, Reich knows he’s not likely running for the gold medal, but it gives him the best opportunity to build towards the major events in the next two years.
“I think I can definitely rise to the occasion of the big events now. I’ve been through a lot of failures. I kind of learned what works and, you know, it’s important to find to find those things.”
Papaconstantinou changes their approach in her next stage
Papaconstantinou is just an athlete, having recently finished five years at Toronto Metropolitan University. With no para-athletics available in Canadian university sport, the Toronto native has had to balance her schooling with high-performance, out-of-school track.
With the balance, there wasn’t the time to try out new things, no ability to push to the limits without fearing burnout or injury. So while she already has a Paralympic medal, things are different for the next stage of her career.
Less than a week after receiving her degree this year, the 22-year-old has a new lease on the sport.
“There’s so much more time to work on things we haven’t before. Lifting more, playing with strength in the weight room, it wasn’t feasible as a student-athlete,” she said. “My coach and I are going to play around with that, look at some nutrition and see if we can get that 10 percent better.”
Racing in B.C. for the first time, Papaconstantinou is looking to add a national title to her accolades after setting PBs in European IPC races this season. However, it’s not been an easy season. First, she suffered an allergic reaction while in Europe, which derailed her training and followed that up with a bout of food poisoning.
Still, when she hits the track at McLeod Athletic Park, she has National Championship and personal bests in mind as she enters the next stage of her career.
“I still feel like I’m in personal best shape for Nationals,” she said. “I think that’s like the most important thing about this season is having fun. So just going out doing that, and that’s pretty much it.”