Leading up to his first Paralympic Games in Sydney in 2000, Canadian swimming phenom Benoit Huot, then 15, almost didn’t make the trip. With limited support for the Canadian Paralympic Team at the time, the team was short on funds to cover their travel costs to Australia. But just a few months before the Games, Pfizer Canada, which began supporting the Canadian Paralympic Team in 1996, stepped up with a contribution to ensure that athletes and coaches could attend the Games in Sydney.
“That, for me, was a very emotional and special gesture. We were able to focus on our performance and bringing home medals,” said Huot, who went on to win five medals at the Sydney Games.
With the Paralympic Games kicking off in Rio Sept. 7, Pfizer is proudly marking its 20th anniversary as a supporter of the Canadian Paralympic Team. As the team’s longest corporate sponsor, Pfizer has played an integral role in helping expand the Paralympic movement in Canada, which is part of a wider global movement that uses sports to promote health, rights and social integration for people with disabilities.
“Pfizer had faith and belief in the team right from the beginning,” said Karen O’Neill, CEO of the Canadian Paralympic Committee. “There’s such a strong overlap of what our values are: performance at that the highest level, integrity and community.”
‘The World Has Caught Up’
The Paralympic Movement traces its roots to post-World War II England. Sir Ludwig Guttman, a neurologist working with paralyzed veterans, saw sport as a rehabilitative tool to restore strength and confidence in his patients. He organized the first sporting event, an archery tournament for wheelchair athletes, to coincide with the opening of the London Olympic Games in 1948. The first Paralympic Games were held in Rome in 1960 with 400 athletes. Since the Summer Games in Seoul in 1988, the Paralympic Games have taken place in the same venue following the Olympics.
Now heading to Rio for his fifth Paralympic Games, Huot expects to face his toughest competition to date. As the Paralympic movement has gained a foothold around the world, the depth of competition has strengthened.
“The world has caught up,” said Huot. “It’s completely different than it was 20 years ago because of growing awareness and credibility. It’s a lot more difficult to get those medals.”
Overcoming Physical Challenges to Pursue a Passion for Sports
Born with a club foot, Huot underwent several surgeries as a child on his foot and didn’t start to walk until age three. Despite his disability, he wanted to play professional hockey or baseball. But Huot had trouble skating and couldn’t keep up with his peers on the baseball field. Once he found swimming, however, he never turned back. From the ages of eight to 13, Huot competed at the club level against able-bodied athletes, and eventually started competing at the national level against other elite swimmers with disabilities.
Today Huot is one of Canada’s most decorated Paralympic athletes. He trains up to 40 hours a week and has won 19 Paralympic medals, many in the freestyle and individual medley events. Paralympic swimming events are divided into 10 different categories based on the athlete’s disability. Huot competes in class 10, for those with the least disability.
Inspiring the Next Generation
As a part of the Canadian Paralympic Team partnership, athletes like Huot visit Pfizer offices from time to time to share their experiences and to talk about the importance of sport and health and wellness.
“Our colleagues are so proud of the athletes and our longstanding partnership,” said Rhonda O’Gallagher, vice president corporate affairs for Pfizer Canada. “It really unites us behind something truly Canadian.”
For Huot, his role outside the pool is also to inspire the next generation.
“Whether it’s people with a disability or simply a kid [interested in sports], we all need to learn the importance of having goals and dreams in life,” he said. “Being an athlete, you have the possibility to teach and inspire to children to realize their dreams. That’s what all athletes are able to do, just simply by being a role model for them.”
While the competition is tough going into Rio, Huot expects to enjoy every moment. “I will be smiling every day, thinking how lucky I am to do this, to have the maple leaf on my jacket.”
Rio 2016 Paralympic Games Fast Facts:
Athletes: around 4,350
Countries: 161 plus a refugee team
Sports: 22; from wheelchair fencing to judo to track and field.
New sports in Rio: canoe and triathlon