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National team alumni go back to school with Game Plan program

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By Rebecca Cheverton

In January, Benoit Huot handed in his final project for his Executive MBA degree at the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University. The five-time Paralympian can now add a master’s degree to his long list of achievements.

Huot received an academic scholarship through the partnership between the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) and the Smith School of Business. Up to 1,200 Olympic and Paralympic national team athletes are eligible for academic scholarships as part of the eight-year partnership that began in 2016.

“It was a real privilege to have the ability in my mid-thirties to do such a program and to have the ability to gain from it”, said the Longueuil, Que., native.

Huot is one of three national swim team members to receive a scholarship. Martha McCabe, two-time Olympian and world bronze medallist, received the scholarship for her Master of Management Innovation & Entrepreneurship degree that she completed last summer.

Zack Chetrat, 2015 Pan Am Games Silver medallist, is the most recent alumnus to receive a scholarship. He began his Master of Finance degree in June.

“I’m really just excited to see and to learn a bit more about finance from the academic side,” said Chetrat, who’s a partner at EdgePoint Wealth, a wealth management firm in Toronto.

“I have a lot of hands on experience now, I’ve been doing it for four years. But I think the chance to explore different things in a school setting is pretty exciting for me.”

The transition from being a high-performance athlete to retirement comes with a lot of change and uncertainty. That’s why the Smith School Scholarship, which is supported by the COC’s Game Plan, offers athletes an opportunity to prepare themselves for life after sport.

Game Plan, is a collaboration between the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC), Canadian Paralympic Committee (CPC), Sport Canada and Canadian Olympic and Paralympic Sport Institute Network (COPSIN).

“I think it was just a good transition in some way of keeping my head occupied after swimming when there’s so many changes in your life” said Huot, who started his degree in August 2018, right as he was beginning to retire from swimming.

Huot, who got his bachelor’s degree in Communications and Marketing, always had the idea of doing an MBA in the back of his mind. He started applying to French universities in Montreal but when the Game Plan program came around he thought it was the perfect opportunity.

One of the main reasons he wanted to go back to school was to get credibility.

“I was thinking that people would just pursue me as an athlete still,” said Huot. “Even though I have this background in communications, with the MBA I felt my resume would be stronger.”

The 18-month Executive MBA program was mainly completed remotely, with only six weeks (broken up in two weeks blocks) being full time in Kingston at the school’s main campus. The master’s program was all in English, bringing on a new challenge to Huot, who had only previously completed school in French. That didn’t stop him from succeeding. Huot finished the program with a 3.9 GPA.

“I wasn’t expecting that at all,” said Huot. “The first course that we finished I got an A- on my own as that course was individual. […] I was in the car driving to Ottawa for an event and I opened my phone, I got the email and I’m like what are you kidding me! I couldn’t believe it.”

Like Huot, McCabe had started thinking about going back to school as she was reaching the end of her swimming career. When she learned about the Smith School Scholarship through Game Plan it made the decision that much easier.

“The program I ended up doing is kind of about figuring out what you really want to be doing about entrepreneurship so it was perfect for transitioning,” said McCabe.

When McCabe began her 12-month long degree, she had already been running her own business, Head to Head, which connects young Canadians with Olympians and national team athletes through mentorship programs.

“I had been running my business for two years and I had learned a ton about business […] by doing and failing a lot,” said McCabe. “So my main goal was to go into this program and learn some of the more formal processes, approaches, and systems.”

Since McCabe has completed her degree, her business has expanded to not only focus on swimming but other sports as well.

“Before I went into the program it was pretty much just me leading Head to Head but now I’ve got […] a couple employees,” said McCabe. “So, it has helped me grow the business.”

“I think the biggest thing [the program] did was provide me with confidence […], which is really big because you need to have that belief, it’s just like sport, when you’re running a business you need to have that belief in yourself.”

On the side of running her own business, McCabe sits on the athlete commissions for the COC. One thing they try to do is spread the word about Game Plan.

“I just try and tell people as much as I can,” said McCabe. “So many athletes don’t know about it and the programs that Game Plan have to offer are unbelievable.”

That is how Chetrat first found out about the Smith School Scholarship.

“The way I came across the program was that Martha mentioned Game Plan to me and then I came across it again at the AthletesCan Forum this past fall,” said Chetrat. “I thought to myself, hey this is something neat that I may qualify for and I think I’ll look into it a little bit further.”

Chetrat’s program was meant to be in person at the Queens University campus in Toronto, but due to the pandemic it has now been converted online. The 12-month program will be a few nights a week and a full day on weekends allowing Chetrat to continue to work while doing his degree.

“I really like the company I’m working at, I’m a partner in the firm, and the firm is growing rapidly,” said Chetrat. “I think for me having this masters now will help me upgrade my education and be as much part of the firm as I can be as it grows.”

Chetrat who focused on swimming up until his mid-twenties will definitely use what’s he learnt through sport in this next chapter.

“I think what you learn in swimming that you can bring forward into other parts of life is how to pick one thing and go for it and not only that, but once you have chosen something, how to think about getting better at it,” said Chetrat.

Chetrat compared it to swimming 200-m butterfly, the event he specialized in as a swimmer.

“There was a lot that went into thinking about the race, practising your start, practising your turn, practising on your speed and endurance,” said Chetrat. “There was a lot that went into swimming a single race and when I think it comes to working and following your career the same type of thing applies. There’s lots of ways you can improve, there’s lots of ideas you can expose yourself to that will ultimately help you get better in the long term.”

Both Huot and McCabe also agreed that swimming taught them valuable life lessons, especially to be resilient.

“As an athlete you build discipline, you build resilience,” said Huot. “I think I was prepared to be coached well by my colleagues and learn from them and from the teachers also.”

“I think the biggest thing swimming did for me is it obviously taught me and it maybe sounds cliché but to be resilient,” said McCabe. “When you fail or when you mess something up you know that’s OK and you just try again, […] it’s just like swimming when you swim a bad race, which any swimmer knows happens more often than the good ones.”