It took Canada’s able-bodied Olympians a week to win their first and only gold medal in London. But swimmer Benoît Huot got the job done on Day 1 of the Paralympic Games, breaking his own world record in the process. Huot’s win marked a return to the gold rush he started in 2000, before Beijing became a blip in the road.
“It’s what I’ve been dreaming of for four years,” the native of Longueuil, Que., said after winning the men’s 200-metre individual medley on Thursday. “I wanted to go to Beijing and win the gold, so it would have been three in a row – Sydney, Athens and Beijing. But it didn’t happen. But that’s what really motivated me to come back for another four years and do well. I had the best four years of training of my life, and tonight we saw the results.”
Shortly after Huot won gold, his Canadian teammate, 19-year-old Summer Mortimer, won silver in the women’s 200-metre individual medley. The native of Ancaster, Ont., who shattered the bones in both feet after a trampoline accident four years ago, may follow in Huot’s wake into multimedal territory.
“I haven’t been training for it, this is my extra event,” Mortimer said . “It was basically just to get the jitters out, and have a lot of fun with it, so I’m completely amazed with the outcome.”
The win was the 17th Paralympic medal of Huot’s career, which began two decades ago at age eight when he realized his first passion – hockey – might not be the best fit for a kid with a club foot. When a friend’s success in the pool tempted Huot to try swimming, however, he thrived. At 13, he competed against able-bodied swimmers at the 1997 Quebec Games and won a silver medal. A year later, he won two gold and four silver medals in the International Paralympic Committee World Championships. He won five gold in Athens, and “floated on a cloud” in the years after that.
Beijing was a different story. A virus had hampered him; it was probably the worst competition of his life. He won four bronze – and standing above him on the podium in every race was a fresh young talent: Andre Brasil of Brazil. Huot, ever the competitor, was inspired.
On Thursday, Huot, 28, beat his rival by 2.35 seconds. Brasil won silver.
Like Huot, Mortimer began swimming at an early age. Also a competitive trampoline athlete, she missed a foam landing pit and landed feet first on concrete during a training exercise in 2008. She shattered most of the bones in her left foot and several in her right.
She spent six months in a wheelchair and doctors initially thought they might have to amputate her feet. She had limited range of motion in her feet, full of plates and screws, but using crutches and then walking boots, she learned to walk again. She also returned to the pool.
Mortimer was swimming at age two and began competing at nine, even competing at the 2008 Beijing Olympic trials. After her accident, her father Craig coached her to use her upper body to compensate for the lack of rotation on her feet. She smashed several world records at the 2010 IPC World Championships.
“I wasn’t nervous, but it’s been a really emotional experience so far,” she said after silver-medal race in London. “I’ve been through a lot over the past few years, so building up to the race, a lot of things that have been pressing on my heart have released, so I’m feeling more happiness than anything.”
She will be in the pool for five more events, with her three strongest yet to come – the 50m and 100m freestyle and the 100m backstroke. Huot also competes in three more events. Paralympic swimmers are grouped according to how their disability impairs their swimming ability. Both Huot and Mortimer are classified at level 10, the lowest ranking for swimmers (meaning their disabilities are less restrictive compared to other swimmers with a physical disability).