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Canadian swimmer Benoit Huot wants back on top of Paralympic podium

08/23/2012 03:36 EDT | Updated 10/23/2012 05:12 EDT
Benoit Huot's desire at the London Paralympics reflects the entire Canadian team's challenge in a nutshell.

Huot wants to get back to where he once was in Paralympic swimming, which is on top of the podium.

Paralympic competition overall has suddenly become much stiffer with more countries entering the race.

The field increased by 24 countries from the 2000 Paralympics in Sydney to the 2008 Games in Beijing.

After finishing tied for third in the gold medal count in 2000 and third in 2004 in Athens, Canada slipped to seventh in 2008.

The country's 2012 objective in London is to finish in the top eight in gold medals won. They won 19 gold four years ago.

"It is absolutely harder," Canadian Paralympic Committee president Henry Storgaard says. "We're feeling and seeing that international competitiveness across the board."

Huot has felt the heat in the pool. Winner of a combined eight Paralympic gold medals, including five in 2004, Huot took four bronze in Beijing.

Standing above him on the podium in every race was Andre Brasil of Brazil. But because of Brasil, Huot enters the London Games with a renewed hunger.

"When the Brazilian Andre came along, I was on top of the world and suddenly was I not winning five gold, but not even one," Huot says. "It really pushed me.

"In 2010 at the last world championships, I had the chance to beat Andre for the first time. He's definitely the guy who pushed me to a better athlete. I really want to thank him. Without him, I would maybe still be in the pool, but I wouldn't be a better swimmer."

And it's interesting to be hunter instead of the prey, Huot adds.

"When you're number one, it's not easy on a daily basis to push yourself as hard because there's no one else to beat," he explains. "Sometimes it's fun to be second or third and trying to get to that number one."

The 28-year-old from Longueuil, Que., enters his fourth Paralympic Games as one of Canada's most decorated swimmers.

Huot expects to add to his collection of 16 career medals when he swims five events in London.

He's a world record-holder in the 200 individual medley, set at the Paralympic trials in Montreal in April. Huot's time of two minutes 10.26 seconds is just over 10 seconds slower than the Canadian record of 1:59.19.

He was born with club feet and competes in the S10 classification, which is defined as minimal physical impairment.

Swimming was never Huot's first choice. Frozen water appealed more to him.

"My hero is Patrick Roy, the former goaltender for the Montreal Canadiens," he explains. "I said to my mom and dad 'I want to become the next NHL star and play for the Montreal Canadiens.'

"Mom said 'That's a great idea, but maybe you'll have a hard time with skates and your feet.' It took me two minutes to realize my mom was right. It was really hard to skate and even today, 20 years later, it's not easy for me."

He acted on a friend's suggestion to try swimming and competed against able-bodied athletes.

Huot's eureka moment setting him on the path to Paralympic glory was at age 13, when he saw Philippe Gagnon on television after cleaning up in Paralympic swimming at the 1997 Canada Games.

"Philippe was doing an interview with a journalist on RDS. (He said) 'I was born with a club foot,'" Huot recalls. "This was how I found out I could become a Paralympic athlete and suddenly Philippe became my new Patrick Roy, my new hero."

The communications student at the University of Quebec-Montreal serves on the athletes councils of Swimming Canada, the Canadian Paralympic Committee and Commonwealth Games Canada.

A television analyst during the 2010 Paralympics in Vancouver, Huot has detected a shift in attention and interest from Canadians in Paralympic sports since those Games.

"In Quebec, not as much, but in the west, the Vancouver Paralympics really helped," Huot observes. "Even though the Winter Paralympics are quite small compared to the Summer ones, it really helped Canadian know a little bit more about the Paralympics.

"There's still a lot of work to be done obviously, but we're in the right direction."

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