This POV was originally written for Radio-Canada and has been translated to English.
Dear 13-year-old Benoit Huot,
What you are watching on television on that August 1997 afternoon is going to change the course of your life.
You adore sports. You love watching all sports on television. But there has only been one that you have practised daily for the last five years: swimming. It's your passion. On this summer day, your favourite sport is coming up at the Canada Games taking place in Brandon, Man.
As a swimmer, you are captivated. After the Games are over, a young man captures the journalists' attention. He won several medals and set world records. This athlete's name is Philippe Gagnon. He competed in the Canada Games for athletes with a disability.
At 13 years old, you have a vague idea what the Paralympic Games are, but you believe that they are reserved for athletes who have more severe physical disabilities.
But listening to Philippe in an interview, you learn that he is allowed into parasport competition because of a congenital condition: club foot.
It's a world that you believed was unattainable for you, because you also have a club foot.
Since you were six years old you quickly grasped that your foot was slightly different, and it made doing certain activities more difficult. You understood that you would never be a famous hockey player. You were a bit hurt when you realized that you would not be the next Patrick Roy.
But today, Philippe is showing you that you can compete in sports and be a champion. Philippe, a few years older than you, will become your role model.
He will inspire you to compete in elite sports. You will want to meet this young man who, you feel, shares so much in common with you.
You will remember this day all of your life because it marks the start of a big adventure. I promise you that you will regret nothing.
In a few months, you will meet Philippe in Sherbrooke at the Para-Canadian championships. You will be excited, maybe even a bit invasive towards him. It may seem difficult to believe right now but he will soon take you under his wing and will be your mentor. Without realizing it, you will soon become one as well.
Be careful of every small gesture you make because others will look at you, like you look at Philippe today.
And your life will change quickly in your teenage years. Be ready, it's going to go fast. In a few months, you will receive your classification as a para-athlete.
In the beginning during your first competitions far from your house and from your mom, you will be a bit anxious. Trust the people around you, they will know how to help and guide you.
You are lucky, you are in a sport-study program in high school. Despite the guidelines put in place to help you, it will always be difficult to combine sport and school.
I know that your passion for swimming will lead you to spend the majority of your time concentrating on sports. Remember that studying will bring you a lot and will allow you to grasp different opportunities.
Spiteful tongues will tell you that you don't deserve to be a para-athlete, because your disability seems subtle. People in your entourage, such as athletes, coaches, journalists and many others will insinuate that there is no place for you in para-sport. Sometimes, they will make you feel like a cheater, like someone who is taking advantage of the system.
You are going to be shaken.
Stay strong and concentrate on what you can control. Leave their negative energy behind you. There will always be the judgy ones, there to badmouth you. You will help educate the public, help change its mentality, but there will always be detractors who will be jealous of what you achieve. Never let them discourage you.
Your big sister, Genevieve, will be there to support you. Be realistic, it won't be easy for her to live in the shadow of her little brother. You are young and you don't yet understand the repercussions of your actions. Make sure that you are there for her, in the same way that she is always present for you.
Three years after the summer day when you saw Philippe on television, you will participate in your first Paralympic Games. Philippe will win four medals. And you, at 16 years old, will win two more than that.
Three times you will step on to the top of the podium.
The last of these gold medals, you and your team will go and capture it — the 4x100 metres. It will be even more special as it will be a world record, but especially, your last race together.
Live through highs, lows
The next part of your career will not always be simple. You will live through highs and lows, from Games to Games. Let me tell you.
After the Sydney 2000 Games, you will want to have fun and have a life outside of the pool. It won't be easy to find balance, but you'll get there.
The end of high school will be a beautiful celebration but it will be a period of change and questioning.
In these years, you’re going to feel the need to please the people closest to you. Other people’s opinions of you will seem important, but try to keep them in perspective.
You’ll make the difficult decision to change coaches. Guy, the man who guided you through your start in swimming, is like a second father to you.
You’ll always have an enormous amount of respect for the coach and the man that he is. You’ll never forget the role that he played in your successes. The values that he taught you will stick with you your whole life.
You’re also going to want to have your first girlfriend. For a while, you’ll think that swimming forces you to live a lifestyle that is too fast-paced to have friends. The demands of your discipline will weigh on you sometimes.
You’ll realize just before the Athens Games that you’ve lost your usual concentration and that you’re no longer as focused at your practices. You’ll need to find a balance.
These youthful mistakes will frustrate your ability to achieve your goals at all levels, in love, as well as at school. You’ll go through a more difficult period, you’ll think that the world is collapsing, but don’t worry, this will be an important learning process for you.
The Athens Games will be your greatest Paralympic Games in terms of the number of medals and records. You’ll have boundless energy and a drive to make your mark as a champion.
For a while, you’ll believe that no one will ever beat your records. After all, in 2004, you’ll dominate your category like Michael Phelps did his.
I have some advice for you: after these Games, you should take some time to appreciate the moment.
Savour the victory because in 2005, after months of partying, a Brazilian athlete will bring you back to earth. In another few months, this previously unknown swimmer, Andre Brasil, will break all the world records.
You will be dethroned from the position of “favourite.” This will be one of the most difficult periods of your career. You’ll lose your bearings. For almost a decade, you were never beaten. You still don’t know how to deal with adversity.
In preparation for the Beijing Games, concentrate on your training and not what Andre Brasil is doing. Quit having those negative thoughts.
The Beijing Games will be the biggest disappointment of your career. Your heart, your body and your mind will never truly be in the Games. All the same, it’s at these Games that you will grow the most as an athlete and as a human.
The disappointment will sting, the blow will be hard to handle. You’ll feel like giving up, hiding yourself away and never speaking to anyone again. This setback will have a positive effect and force you to ask yourself tough questions.
You never questioned yourself on your approach to sport, on your preparation, on your nutrition or your mental preparedness.
After the Games in 2008, you won’t know what to do. Get involved in different projects. Giving back will come naturally to you, because you’re always helping other people. Your engagement with others will give you a fresh outlook and will help you come up with new objectives.
The desire to pursue school will become a priority. You’ll be interested in a lot of things, like real estate. Maintain the hard-working character that has served you well in the pool.
As far as swimming goes, take it one day at a time. Winning more medals and breaking more records might not be enough to motivate you anymore.
You’ll think carefully about starting another four-year Paralympic training cycle because you will have lost your love of swimming.
You’re only thinking about the results.
Search for that early passion, from your first 12 years, the spirit, the eye of the tiger. The flame is still there. At one point, you’ll realize that you still love your sport. No longer being a champion means you’ll have less pressure. You’ll discover that you’re more at ease in the role of the underdog. The fun of swimming will be back.
You’ll have to change the structure of your training and your approach to competitions, but you’ll be well trained. Appreciate those years of training, because they’re the four best years of your career.
In London in 2012 you will experience the most beautiful moment of your career. I know, it seems far off on this summer day in 1997, but it will arrive soon enough. You won’t believe it’s possible, but in going back to basics and working like when you were a little kid, you will climb back up to the top step of the podium.
You will be happier than ever. Savour each moment.
Coming home will be a whirlwind. You’ll be really busy, but don’t forget that you still need to have fun. You and your love, Annie, will decide to start a huge home renovation project. It will be a lot of work, but you’ll be proud of it. You’ll realize that the two of you make a great team.
You’ll decide once again to go train in Toronto the year before the Pan Am Games. This period will be one of the most difficult of your career. You’ve never been so far from home for so long. Annie will stay in Montreal. You will experience real loneliness.
The idea of a two-year exile in Toronto will seem like an eternity. At some point, just the thought of getting back in the pool will cause anxiety. After eight months, you’ll listen to your heart and come back home.
In Rio, don’t think too much about the three Ukrainians who came out of nowhere to win just about everything, you have nothing to prove. Don’t worry about the last four minutes, they will be worth the pain. At 32 years old, you will swim the best time of your career and you will edge your way in between the Ukrainians to win the bronze. This will be another memorable moment in your life.
I’ll finish by giving you a few pieces of advice.
Thank the people who are a part of your life. Take the time to be with family despite your busy schedule. It’s important that you take a break when you can.
Annie, your soulmate, will become your fiancée. Take care of her. She is precious, and she is always there for you through your highs and lows. She will give you unconditional support. Listen to the advice she gives you.
Stay true to yourself, Ben. Listen to your heart, keep a smile on your face and above all, no matter what happens, remember that it’s important to have fun. Never forget this, even as an adult.
Never give up on your dreams.
Enjoy the next few years, Ben. It’s going to be an amazing adventure.