Richland’s Nate Higgins trains with goal of Paralympic Games
Nate Higgins makes his way through Kia Ora Fitness without missing a beat.
Moving from one exercise machine to the next, he starts pumping out reps with a 65-pound dumbbell in each hand. And then, well, a lot more.
He greets others at the gym — friends — who show up after him. But once he starts lifting, he doesn’t take a break until he’s done, not even for an interview.
This is his routine, six days a week, and consistency is everything. For someone who plans to compete in the Paralympic Trials yet again, it has to be.
“It’s a huge honor,” Higgins said. “I’m really looking forward to going back.”
Those who know him best are confident he’ll make it.
“I have no doubt whatever he sets his mind to, he’ll get there,” said Jennifer Tonkyn, a swim instructor at Columbia Basin Racquet Club.
And there’s four-time Olympic gold-medal swimmer John Naber: “I can’t imagine that he’ll be denied a spot on this team. He does not expect it to come easily.”
Higgins, who was paralyzed in an accident on a painting job in 2004, made his first trip to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., in 2011. He had hoped to qualifying for the 2012 Games in London as a swimmer, but he didn’t have his best performance.
Seven years of hard work and rehabilitation — plus competing in a new event, the shot put — have the 33-year-old Richland native taking aim at the 2020 Games in Tokyo.
Higgins said that with making his second trip to the trials, he will know a lot more of what to expect.
“I said, ‘I’ll keep hitting the weights and see how this goes,’ ” he said.
Higgins said he has had to overcome several health and mental challenges this year, relying on the support of his parents and his self-determination to meet the challenges.
“You’re going to continue to get into the gym,” he said. “No matter how depressed you are, how (crappy) you feel, you’re going to get in there.”
That mentality is something Higgins is known for, just ask his coaches.
“I’ll never forget the day we got him in the water,” Tonkyn said. “I never could challenge him enough.”
They first met in 2005, right after Higgins’ fall. Tonkyn said he was searching for something then, and he eventually found it.
He credits her with helping him make it to the trials; she says he’s a coach’s dream.
Tonkyn said one way to describe how amazing Higgins is: He completed the Alcatraz swim not once, but twice. The 1 1/2-mile swim in the San Francisco bay is notorious for rough and cold water.
Somehow, Higgins finds a way to succeed. He says it’s because he doesn’t want regrets.
“What’s the risk if I don’t do this,” Higgins said. “There are no ‘what ifs.’ ”
Higgins was awarded a “Swim with Mike” scholarship for athletes with physical challenges. The scholarship paid for his Master of Business Administration at the University of Southern California. Higgins raved about how USC made him want to be “the best.”
Now, he sits on the scholarship’s board. Higgins has been raising money for years to pay back his scholarship.
“We put him on the board because he sets an example,” said Ron Orr, associate athletic director at USC and Swim With Mike executive director.
These days, Higgins mentors the next “Swim with Mike” generation. But the organization also gave him a chance to meet one of his greatest mentors in Naber.
Naber and Higgins frequently worked out together at USC. The pair still talk once every couple months.
Naber said now he’s less of Higgins’ mentor and more of a cheerleader because of his growth.
“It seems like everything he tries, it’s pretty likely he’ll be successful,” Naber said. “I’m pretty confident he’ll make it to Tokyo.”
Higgins heads to the U.S. Paralympics Development Camp in Colorado Springs at the end of the month. He’s ready to go for it.
“I can’t guarantee I’ll make the team in 2020,” Higgins said. “I can’t guarantee that I’ll win a gold medal. What I can tell you is that I plan on being more consistent than anybody else.”
For more infromation about Swim with Mike, go to swimwithmike.org.