Imagine being a kid watching sports on television and wishing you could play on a professional team one day.
Now imagine you are a kid with a physical disability that makes it hard even to play with the kids in your neighbourhood.
“I had a great club. They really supported me and it made a big difference in my life.”
Benoit Huot was that kid. He was born with a club foot and struggled to run and jump like the other kids on his street in Longueuil, Quebec. He had to go through multiple surgeries as a child just to give his foot a relatively useable shape, and he struggled through pain and prosthetics to play with his friends.
Huot didn’t end up playing professional hockey for the Montreal Canadiens, but he has realized another sporting dream. This fall, he’ll swim for Canada at his fifth Paralympic Games, taking place in Rio de Janeiro from September 7-18. He will be competing in three different events: 200 metre individual medley (IM), 400 metre freestyle, and 100 metre backstroke. Trials for the games will be in Toronto from April 5-10.
Active for Life spoke with Benoit four years ago during a break in his final training preparation for London 2012, where he won one gold medal and set the world record (200 metre IM), one silver medal (400 metre freestyle), one bronze medal (100 metre backstroke), and was the flag bearer for Canada at the closing ceremony.
Back in 2012, he talked about his early struggles to play sports, and how he discovered competitive swimming to become a Paralympian. (Watch other super humans like Benoit.)
Q. What sports did you play as a child, and how did your disability impact you?
I didn’t start to walk until around the age of 3. Between the age of 3 and 6, I had a prosthetic on my right leg to make it a bit more solid. Eventually I didn’t need it to walk anymore and I became interested in sport.
I was about 6-years-old when I said to my mom, “Mom, I want to become the next NHL star and play for the Montreal Canadiens!”
You see, swimming wasn’t my first choice. I wanted to become a hockey star — the next Patrick Roy!
And she said, “Well, that’s a nice idea, but you might have a bit of trouble skating with that leg.”
But my parents took me to Canadian Tire anyway and bought me my first skates. I went home really excited and I spent a lot of time outside trying to skate.
I fell down a lot and realized my mom was right, so I put hockey aside at age 6.
Then I started playing on a baseball team at age 7, and quickly realized I wasn’t really as good as the other kids. I remember one time when I started crying and I just left the field and went home.
I think it was really a question of wanting to integrate with the other kids. They were all running much faster, and I guess I was kind of scared that they were going to make fun of me. So I put baseball aside as well.
Q. What inspired you to get into competitive swimming?
I got into swimming when I was about 8-years-old because my best friend swam at the Quebec Games and won a silver medal at age 11. He was on the front page of the community newspaper, so I was really inspired by his resolve and performance.
When he came home, he really encouraged me. He said, “You should try swimming. Maybe this sport will really work for you.”
So we contacted the local swimming club of St. Hubert, Club de Natation Hippocampe St. Hubert.
My parents told the coaches about my disability, and the coaches said they would work with me to accommodate it.
They had a great club. They really supported me and it made a big difference in my life.
A while ago my dad said, “I would never have believed that you would travel around the world to compete after leaving the baseball field crying.”
Q. Did you ever play any other sports again, other than swimming?
As long as I can remember, I was always playing in the street when I was a kid. I was always trying to play baseball with my friends and be active. Playing on a real team didn’t work out for me because I was lacking confidence, but I still kept playing every week in my neighbourhood.
My favourite class in elementary school was phys ed. Later I went to a sport étude high school and focused on swimming.
Maybe if swimming had been my first sport at 6-years-old, I might not have developed the same confidence. So I think it may have been good timing that I was introduced to swimming later, after my other disappointments.
Q. What were the barriers and challenges that you faced with your disability?
The barriers I had were mostly in my own head, because of the little differences I had. I was worried that kids would make fun of me. But I don’t ever remember kids making fun of me.
I was lucky enough to have great friends, great instructors, great parents. My parents really gave me carte blanche. They supported me in everything I did. They never pushed me, never said I had to train harder. When I told them that I wanted to play hockey, they didn’t say no.
Q. What were the things that helped you to move forward as a competitive athlete?
The overall support behind me. When we talk about high-performance sport today, we have a big team around each athlete. But when I started, my support was more from my family and friends.
It wasn’t high performance at all. It was just the fact that swimming was important to me. It was enough to them that I was interested in all sports and I really wanted to play.
As soon as I got to high school, I was in a specialized sport program that combined school and swimming.
Q. Do you have any advice for kids with disabilities who want to play sports?
Never give up on your dreams. It is so important to have dreams and goals in life, and I encourage every kid to believe in them.