Supporting Canadian Athletes

Benoit Huot

Renowned Canadian swimmer Benoît Huot has almost forty medals under his belt spanning 3 Paralympic Games, 2 Commonwealth Games, and 3 World Championships; but one medal in particular is still missing. The elusive Commonwealth gold will be his target when he competes at the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games in October, a feat that will complete his collection and top off a truly golden career.

Benoît was born in Longueuil, Quebec and spent his childhood in St-Hubert, on the south shore of Montreal. He was born with a clubfoot, which is a bone deformity of the foot, accompanied by a retraction of the tendons and muscles. When Benoit was just two days old, his right leg was put into a cast. Each week following the diagnosis, he received a newly formed cast to correct the shape of his foot as it was so curved that his big toe touched the heel. After two months, doctors advised his parents that the cast would not suffice to correct the defect, and that he needed to undergo surgery on his Achilles tendon. The surgery greatly improved the orientation of his foot, and at 18 months old, he no longer had to bear a cast. For the next five years, Benoit wore prosthetics during the night and orthopedic shoes during the day.

Today, Benoit still has an atrophied calf, a weak ankle with little mobility and a smaller foot but attributes the remarkable transformation to the great care and attention he received from the doctors and his parents.

Benoît found it difficult growing up. Beginning to walk at the age of three with special orthopedic shoes prevented him from playing sports with the other kids in the neighborhood. He also realized at an early age that he would not be following in his hockey hero Patrick Roy’s footsteps since he was unable to skate. At eight years old Benoit tried swimming when his neighbor won a silver medal at the Quebec Games and made the cover of the city newspaper. “He inspired me”, says Benoît, “it was an individual sport and I felt free in the water, even though it was harder to swim with my leg, I had a good coach and I found my passion!” Benoit’s disability made him come to appreciate early on that “there is always a way you can realize your dream in life, I never stop myself from wanting something, instead I work harder to make it happen”, he says.

He started training a couple times a week, and at the age of eleven, he competed at the Quebec Games and placed 7th. He thought that was pretty good until he realized that only first, second, and third received medals! He was so frustrated he didn’t get one that he decided he would do anything to win a medal and stand on the podium. “That is when I realized that I wanted to go further in the sport”, Benoît explains.

He continued to train harder and went back to the Quebec Games two years later and finally reached the podium with a silver medal. At that time, he had no idea that he could compete at the Paralympics, “I thought it was for individuals with a wheelchair or with a severe disability”, he says, so he continued to compete with able bodied athletes.

One day, he was watching a swim meet on TV where they were interviewing Philippe Gagnon from Quebec who had won seven gold medals and set a world record at the Canada Games, and more importantly had a clubfoot. It was then that Benoît realized that he could do it too. Benoit made the national team eight months later, and debuted on the international scene in 1998 at the World Championships in New Zealand, where at fourteen years old he won two gold medals and four silver medals. Philippe, who was the only other athlete from Quebec on the team, played an important role as mentor for Benoît, who could only speak French at the time.

Benoît went on to compete at the 2000 Paralympic Games in Sydney, winning three gold medals and three silver medals. Continuing his medal haul, he won eight more medals at the 2002 IPC World Championships in Argentina and five gold medals and one silver medal at the 2004 Paralympic Games, setting three world records. In 2005, Benoît won six gold medals at the Disability Sport England Swimming Championships and finally a gold medal and one silver medal at the first Paralympic World Cup in Manchester. Benoît recently competed at the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games where he won 4 bronze medals and said that it was one of the greatest experiences of his life. Now he is looking ahead to the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games, and hopes to complete his one bronze medal from the Manchester Commonwealth Games and two silver medals from the Melbourne Commonwealth Games with the missing Gold.

As a torch bearer, Benoît had the honour of carrying the Olympic Torch during the 2010 Olympic Torch Relay, in December 2009 and also carried the Queen’s Baton at a rally on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. The baton will travel 190,000 km around the world leading up to the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, India this October.

Benoît began visiting schools and sharing his story with elementary kids in 2003 and currently visits over 5000 kids a year. He is part of the ‘Jouez Gagnant’ program which brings high performance athletes to schools in Quebec to promote physical activity and healthy lifestyles. He dedicates two weeks every year to this program and visits over 20 schools a year. “I was 12 years old when Jean Luc Brassard came to my school and I was so inspired; I remember it like it was yesterday”, he explains, “it is so important for me to do this – I only need to influence one of them for it to be worth it!”

The ‘Benoît Huot Foundation’ which was created in May 2009 is an initiative to help young athletes with a disability reach the Paralympics. “Athletes need the most support before they actually reach that level of competition, but recognition usually comes after you win medals”, explains Benoît, “families often don’t have the means to help the athletes get to the next level so the Foundation is there to help them do that”. It is one of the few organizations that only support athletes with a disability.

Benoît is an ambassador for Right to Play, a global humanitarian organization that uses sport and play programs to improve health, develop life skills, and foster peace for children and communities in some of the most disadvantaged areas of the world. Right To Play is supported by an international team of high performance athletes from over forty countries. Benoît spent time in Africa in 2007 with Chantal Petitclerc inspiring the children and teaching them about sport and physical activity. “We had the chance to play so it is so easy for us to promote the importance of physical activity”, he says, “it was a good eye opener and something I was proud to be a part of”.

As a 12 year veteran of Swimming Canada’s national team, Benoît has spent the last three as the representative for athletes with a disability. “As one of the oldest on the national team, I try to help athletes through any problems and offer advice on different issues”, he says. Since he understands exactly what they are going through, he can relate to them and inspire them to never give up.

Benoît was first introduced to AthletesCAN in 2001 when he received a cell phone through the Bell Athletes Connect Program. He also recalls Mike Smith, former President of AthletesCAN, inviting him to many different events as the athlete rep. “I really like him as a human being and a friend and he inspired me to get more involved”, he says.

Benoît attended the 2008 AthletesCAN Forum in Mississauga, ON and found it was a great opportunity to meet with many athletes from different disciplines, both able bodied and disabled. “That isn’t something we normally get to experience”, he says. He found the sessions a great opportunity to learn what other athlete reps were doing in their sport, and discuss solutions to issues that arise in each sport. He also participated in the KidsCAN School Day, which is an opportunity for school children in the host community to meet with national team athletes, try a variety of sports and learn about the importance of physical activity and healthy lifestyles.

In 2009, Benoît spent a week with AthletesCAN at the PEI Canada Summer Games. As an AthletesCAN Ambassador, his role was to inspire and inform young athletes through his story and introduce AthletesCAN to the next generation of high performance athletes. Benoit met with several teams throughout the week and spoke to over 300 athletes, answering their questions and listening to their experiences – helping to build a better Games for the future.

Training and swimming are still his first priorities but Benoit always makes time for his athlete leadership responsibilities – usually by choosing events that work with his competition schedule and visiting schools when he is in the off season or on vacation. “I like to contribute my time, I believe it is so important, it is just a question of scheduling everything and you can do it”, he says.

He is currently completing a degree in communications at the University of Quebec in Montreal as a part-time student. Benoit dreams of becoming a radio broadcaster where he could promote major games including the Olympics and Paralympics on a regular basis, not just every four years.

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