September 15, 2017
Santa Fe Aquatic Club
"I like this place."
‘I really like this place’
Friday, September 15th, 2017 at 12:02am
Benoît Huot, holder of 20 Paralympic medals, and other members of the Canadian para swimming national team are training at Santa Fe's Genoveva Chavez Community Center. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)
SANTA FE, N.M. — Hockey players Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe. Actor Michael J. Fox. Musicians Gordon Lightfoot and Celine Dion.
These are some of the familiar names who are holders of the Order of Canada, that country’s highest honor for lifetime achievement.
Add swimmer Benoît Huot to that list.
Huot is a paraswimmer who holds 20 Paralympic medals, including nine golds. He and the rest of the Canadian National Team are in Santa Fe this week and next for some high-altitude training at the Genoveva Chavez Community Center in preparation for the upcoming 2017 Mexico City World Para Swimming Championships. The team will join several local and regional teams for the Santa Fe Open at the GCCC today through Sunday.
After he added his 20th medal – a bronze in the 400-meter freestyle in the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro – Huot was honored by his country.
“It’s quite rare for an athlete to receive it; in over 50 years, there are only about 180 athletes on the list,” Huot said. “It was pretty surprising and humbling. It’s an honor to receive the Order of Canada. I guess it’s like the American’s Medal of Freedom. We met with the prime minister. It was very touching.”
Huot was born with a club foot, leaving him with a smaller calf and a smaller foot.
Sports like hockey or running were not an option.
But it wasn’t until he saw a para-swimmer being interviewed – one who had a similar condition – that he turned his talents in that direction.
It put Huot on a life path that has taken him from one end of the globe to the other.
“It’s a great privilege to represent your country, wear the Maple Leaf and go around the world competing,” he said. “That’s what comes to my mind when I think about it. I’m lucky to have such a long career and hopefully still be competitive.”
The Rio games were his fifth paralympics. He set a Canadian record in the 100-meter backstroke with a time that was faster than his gold-medal performance in Athens in 2004.
“I had a great time in Rio,” Huot said. “It’s everything that you learn as human being, and you grow from the sport and you become a better person. At the end of the day, you’re speaking about representing your country and being a proud Canadian. That’s what makes me very proud of the past 20 years.”
His teammate, Aurélie Rivard, also brought home some hardware from Rio, winning gold in the 50-, 100- and 400-meter freestyle events, and a silver in the individual medley, earning Rivard the female Para Swimmer of the Year award. All four of her times were Canadian records, and the 50 and 400 marks were world records.
“It’s basically my life,” said Rivard, 21, who is missing all her fingers on her left hand. “My entire life surrounds that. I’ve been a part of this since I was 13. When I was that age, I was a very shy kid, very insecure. Swimming helped me get out of those bad feeling toward myself. I would find myself every day getting out of my comfort zone, and traveling the world and learning. Today, it’s my passion. I’m very lucky to be able to do what I love for a living.”
Extolling the virtues of para-sports is one of the things that the Canadian team espouses – not just on a competitive level, but also on a personal level.
“There’s great potential for local athletes to become involved in para-sports, even if it’s just for their physical health,” said James Hood, Canadian team leader. “We hope we can open the minds of local citizens that anybody can participate.”
The team got here last weekend and will be staying until Sept. 25 before heading to Mexico City.
For these world travelers, New Mexico has been a bit different, with few reference points other than what they have seen on television.
“I really like this place,” Rivard said. “The only reference I had for New Mexico was ‘Breaking Bad.’ But it’s nice. We have everything we need, it’s all very nice. We’re planning on going downtown (the Plaza) and seeing Meow Wolf. We’ve heard a lot about that. We try to do as much as we can.”
Having training facilities in a place with other amenities was important, Hood said.
“Santa Fe has a great reputation for museums, culture and art,” he said. “Having other activities to do around training has been a big mental and physical help. Being away from home for seven weeks is a long time for anybody and being with the same 32 people for seven weeks can be rough.
“So having the variety and having opportunities to explore different environments is helpful both to the athletes and the staff.”