LONDON - The moment he touched the wall, Benoit Huot released the emotions that had built over the last four years.
When competitors started eclipsing him in Paralympic swimming in 2008, Huot refused to concede his race was run. The Montreal athlete re-dedicated himself to his sport.
Huot won Canada's first medal of the 2012 Paralympic Games with an exclamation mark. The 28-year-old captured gold in the 200 individual medley and broke his own world record Thursday.
Huot leaned back in the water and looked up with a face etched in joy and relief following his race. During his post-race interviews, when Princes Astrid of Belgium hung the medal around his neck and while O Canada played, Huot would erupt in tears.
It was Huot's ninth career gold medal, but first since 2004 when he dominated the Paralympics in Athens with five victories. Expecting another run of gold in 2008, Huot did not step on the top of the podium in Beijing. Instead, he returned to Canada with four bronze.
Huot had set a world record in the 200 I.M. at trials in March in Montreal. He lowered it by a quarter of a second Thursday to two minutes 10.01 seconds.
Huot beat his chief rivals Andre Brasil of Brazil and Rick Pendleton of Australia by more than a body length. Brasil took the pace out hard in butterfly, but Huot reeled the Brazilian in and passed him on the breaststroke leg.
"I went to Beijing the world champion, world-record holder expecting to win that gold medal and I came third," Huot said. "It was a difficult circumstance. It was really hard, but what happened in Beijing gave me that motivation and energy to come back for another four years.
"Yes, it's great to have a medal tonight, but what I'm the most proud of is those four years and the process to get to where I am today. I became a better person and a better athlete because of what happened in Beijing."
Summer Mortimer of Ancaster, Ont., earned silver in the women's 200 I.M., so Canada finished the first day of competition with two medals.
The Canadian team's objective is top eight in the gold-medal count. The country was seventh in Beijing with 19 gold.
Both Huot and Mortimer race in the S10 classification which is defined as minimal physical impairment. Huot, who was born with club feet, was one of the faces of the Canadian Paralympic team prior to London with 16 career Paralympic medals.
The 17th felt sweetly satisfying for the University of Quebec communications student because of everything he'd put into winning it.
"It was a long road back and there's a lot of athletes who could have walked away after Beijing and been done with it," swim team coach Craig McCord said. "From where he was four years ago, this is a huge crawl back and he threw down on some guys who have thrown down (on him).
"The first event of the meet, he was sending a message to the other guys out there that 'guys I'm here to play hard.'"
Huot, a four-time Paralympian, will compete in the 100 backstroke, 400 freestyle and 100 freestyle next week. Mortimer raced her first Paralympic final and finished second to New Zealand's Sophie Pascal, who had set a world record in the morning heats.
Mortimer, 19, also has clubbed feet because of injuries and subsequent surgeries from a trampoline accident in 2008. She bounced off the trampoline and landed on a cement pad.
She had competed in Canada's Olympic swim trials for Beijing just prior to the accident and was a prospect for the London Olympics. So to be in the city as a Paralympian following her accident was as moving for her as Huot's victory was for him.
"I'm a super-emotional person," Mortimer said. "I walked in this morning and I was screaming and tonight before my race I was bawling my eyes out for like half an hour. So I'm good now. Not a best time, silver medal, but Sophie Pascal was incredible.
"Being here and meeting all these people made me realize I am so incredible grateful for the experience I've had as a result of my accident. I don't know if this was part of the journey I was supposed to walk in life but I wouldn't take it back for the world.
"For the able-bodied people at home watching, I hope they gain some respect for me again because the Paralympics is so much harder than the able-bodied side of sport."
Mortimer is a gold-medal contender in Friday's 50-metre freestyle if she can manage the pain in her feet. The cool, damp, windy London weather makes the eight pins in her feet and the metal plate in her left one ache fiercely.
"My feet are killing me," she said. "I'm dying right now standing here talking to you guys."
In other swim finals Thursday, Montreal's Aurelie Rivard was sixth in the 200 individual medley and Calgary's Brianna Nelson finished eighth in 100 backstroke. With 15 medals the target, the swim team's performance will be crucial to Canada's overall success.
In other medal events, Marie-Claude Molnar of Lemoyne, Que., was fourth in track cycling in the women's individual C4 pursuit. Calgary's Brayden McDougall was 12th in the men's C1-2-3 time trial at the track, with Calgary's Jaye Milley and Arnold Boldt of Osler, Sask., 25th and 26th respectively.
Elsewhere, the men's wheelchair basketball team opened with a 68-53 victory over Japan and faces host Britain in its next preliminary-round game Friday. The men's goalball team fell 4-2 to Belgium in its opener.
The men's tandem of Daniel Chalifour of Lac-des-encorces, Que., and Alexandre Cloutier of Quebec City placed seventh in the individual pursuit.
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