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Paralympic legend reflects on Sports Personality of the Decade award

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By Jim Morris

Benoit Huot was reduced to tears when he was named male sports personality of the decade at the 48thGala Sports Quebec recently. It made him think about his career as one of Canada’s greatest Para swimmers and how that journey shaped him as a person.

“It’s something difficult to accept somehow,” said Huot, 37, winner of 20 Paralympic Games medals and a member of the Order of Canada. “Who am I really?”

Other athletes in consideration for the honour included Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, a McGill University Faculty of Medicine graduate and offensive lineman who helped the Kansas City Chiefs win the 2019 Super Bowl but sat out last year’s NFL season to work at a long-term care facility near Montreal; Pierre Lavoie, a triathlete and Ironman specialist; Mikael Kingsbury, an Olympic and world champion in moguls skiing; and Alexandre Bilodeau, a two-time Olympic gold medallist in moguls.

Just being included in this select company “warms your heart” said Huot, but it also made him reflect.

“It’s difficult because trust me, I am far from being a perfect person,” he said. “I’ve had mistakes personally, professionally as an athlete. I have not been the nicest guy out there for many different reasons.

“That’s why . . . it’s difficult to accept this type of recognition. As a teenager, as a young guy, as an athlete sometimes I wasn’t the perfect guy. This (award) is not being the athlete of the decade, it’s the personality of the decade. Do I really deserve this?”

Huot’s athletic career speaks for itself. Besides competing at five Paralympics he won 32 medals at six world championships. He also set 60 world records in his category.

“You learn so much from sports,” said Huot, who was born with a club foot and began swimming at 10 years old. “You learn to be resilient, you learn about teamwork, you learn about adversity.”

Huot won three gold and three silver medals in his first Paralympics in Sydney in 2000. Four years later in Athens he won five gold and a silver.

The crossroads in Huot’s career came in 2008 in Beijing. He went into the Games considered the swimmer to beat in his S10 category but also was dealing with illness and personal issues.

“I was not in the right space mentally, the right space as a person, an individual and as an athlete at that time,” he said. “It’s where I learned the most as an athlete. I made some mistakes.

“When you are able to accept those mistakes, you are able to learn from them and grow as a person.”

Huot went on to swim in both London (where he won a gold, silver and bronze) and ended his Paralympic career in Rio with a bronze. He retired in January 2019.

He doubts the final two Games would have been possible without the lessons he learned in Beijing.

“It really helped me shape the following 10 years in swimming and my life,” Huot said.

“Being a young adult coming out of teenage years and just not being the nicest guy. You sit down with a lot of humility, you realize this is not necessarily the direction that you’d like to take moving forward. You adjust, you accept, you learn. This is the mindset that really shaped the years following Beijing.”

Giving back to sport has always been important to Huot.

He has been named Canada’s chef de mission for the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, England, and was the assistant chef de mission for the 2018 Commonwealth Games at Gold Coast, Australia.

A Right to Play advocate, he also works with the Canadian Paralympic Committee, does broadcasts with Radio-Canada, consults with various sports organizations, and sits on the board of Special Olympics in Quebec.

In the future, Huot may pursue non-sports activities but right now sports “is something I love, something I’m passionate about and something that I’d love to keep on doing.”

Huot’s life also changed when his daughter Mila was born in 2018.

“Our priorities are different, but it just motivates you to keep on going and understand why we’re doing this,” he said.

Huot was live on television when the award was announced. His partner Annie Couture was there and watched the tears stream down his face.

“In any relationship you go through ups and downs,” he said. “She is the one who has supported me all these years for my dreams.

“My life is giving my time away to organizations, to youth, to Para sports. After the show Annie said, ‘You’re getting this today because of all the times that I didn’t understand why you were doing these things.’ ”

Some athletes struggle to adapt to retirement. Huot has enjoyed the transition.

“I enjoy where I am now,” he said. “It’s just much easier because Ben doesn’t have to be the centre of this world. There are much more important things around.”