Advertisement
  1. Archive

TODD RIECH // For Riech, dream is not his alone

Broken dreams litter the landscape of Hot Springs, Mont., and the Flathead and Kootenai Indian Reservation that borders it.

"I remember when they held a day for me last year," Todd Riech, 26, said. "And what I remember most is looking into the eyes of some of the people, mostly the older ones but some of the kids, too. They looked at me as though, I don't know, as though I was doing things they never even thought to dream. As though I could be something for them."

He is more than just an American throwing a javelin at the Olympics, "although I see myself as an American first, then a Native American," he said. "I am doing this for everyone. I hope I win a medal for everyone. But I can see the importance of what I'm doing for my people. It is so rare that one of us achieves anything close to what I have a chance to do."

Riech is the only American Indian on the U.S. Olympic team, hoping to be the next Billy Mills, the Lakota Sioux who came out of nowhere in 1964 to win the 10,000 meters.

"Native Americans haven't really had anyone to show them the way since Billy Mills," Riech said. "I don't know if it's because the kids don't even want to dream. Lots of kids can't get off the reservation, or don't want to. Being a "quarter,' I've been living this dream _ getting off the reservation and succeeding _ all my life."

"I'm half English-Irish and half German," said Jack Riech, Todd's father. "Gloria, my wife, she's Indian and French. If you count up all the Indian blood in her _ Salish, Kootenai, Cree, Spokane, Blackfoot, maybe a couple of others, too _ she's half.

"That makes Todd a quarter, but he's registered on the reservation as just over an eighth because they count only this reservation's blood. It doesn't matter that he's not a full blood. Most tribal members living here aren't."

Todd Riech knew the Indian lore, the stories about healing waters that gave Hot Springs its name. Locals would immerse themselves in the bubbling springs, and illness and injury would be washed away.

He was 14 and he was hurting. More to the point, he was scared. He couldn't tell his parents he had ridden an inner tube down a snowy slope, crashed into a fallen tree, twisted his legs and back grotesquely _ and how the pain stabbed at him. They had forbidden their son to play on the slope.

Todd Riech went instead to the springs and bathed his battered body. How much of it was faith and how much heat therapy matters not. "I would go into the springs feeling weak, feeling as though I could barely move faster than a walk," he said. "My hip would be bothering me, but when I came out I would be able to run that weekend. I can't explain it, but I know it happened."

When his track and field season began, the pain intensified. He relented and went to a doctor. "Turned out Todd had a busted pelvis," his father said. "The doctor said he shouldn't have been able to even walk."

Hot Springs High School had 62 students, 24 in Riech's class. He was a junior on the seven-member team that went to the state championships. Actually, he was

the team. He won the 100, 200 and 400 meters and the javelin. Hot Springs won the title.

"We only won it by a few points," said Loren Sullender, then Hot Springs' all-purpose athletics coach, "so the next year Todd said he wanted to be in some more events. He was really good on the high jump and long jump, but with his ankle and especially his hip, we couldn't take the chance. So he just added the 300-meter hurdles." As a senior, Riech won all five of his events. Hot Springs won another state championship.

He was a four-time All-American at Fresno State, the alma mater of Tampa Bay Bucs quarterback Trent Dilfer, and went to last month's Olympic trials. His first throw of 268 feet, 7 inches was the trials' best. It put him in the Olympics with a chance to be the first American Indian in 32 years to medal.

"They're so proud'

Isn't it time, Billy Mills was asked, that this business of "the first American Indian " be shelved next to "the first African-American , " "the first woman " and so on?

"I don't think so," said Mills, national spokesman for Running Strong for American-Indian Youth and for the Native-American Sports Council. "All 50 states have senators elected to the United States Senate to represent their state sovereignty. Native Americans have a land base 3{ times the size of the original 13 states and what do we have? A Senate committee on Indian Affairs elected to represent the states' sovereignties, making decisions on tribal sovereignties.

"We live in a quasi form of apartheid. African-Americans living here, or Asian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, whatever, they don't."

Riech considers Mills a hero. "I saw the films of his run, I read all about him and I met him a few years ago at a meet in Fresno," Riech said. "After that, I rented Running Brave

(the movie based on Mills' life). I must've watched it three times that weekend."

Riech thinks his heritage is an important part of what he is doing. "Native Americans around the country, when one of us makes it big, they're so proud," Riech said. "They still want to let everyone know that. So do I. That's who I'm doing this for."

The dream

The Flathead and Kootenai reservation is not the desolate, hardscrabble land of so many other Indian territories. The hot springs don't draw as many retirees as they used to, but the ranching and logging are plentiful. It is probably one of the richest reservations, expanding as tribal members buy more and more land. Flathead Power runs the utilities in much of the Northwest, providing millions of dollars, and a natural gas pipeline provides millions more. Most youngsters who grow up there remain there. A few leave, only to return. Who has come off the reservation and made it big? Who left and did something to which Riech could aspire?

"No one I can think of," he said. "That's the shame of it. Indians are looking for a hero. Maybe it is time for me to be it."

Perhaps when he has his law degree, Riech wants to return to the reservation _ not just to set up a practice, not just to buy a house on the shoreline of Flathead Lake.

"I want to help the Indian youth, convince them there is a world out there and a reason to succeed, not just in athletics," he said. "I want to show these kids that someone who dreams can be anything he wants to be.

"And I want to bring back a medal so they can live their dream, and maybe so there can be more than one of us doing this more than once every 20 or 30 years."

Meet the athlete

BORN: Oct. 24, 1970, Hot Springs, Mont.

RESIDES: Fresno, Calif.

HEIGHT: 6-2. WEIGHT: 210.

SCHOOL: Fresno State.

PERSONAL BESTS: Won Olympic trials with throw of 268 feet, 7 inches; ranked first in U.S. in 1994, fifth in '95; bronze medalist, 1995 Pan Am Games; silver medalist, Rio de Janeiro Prix.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Advertisement
Advertisement