This article was originally published on the Montreal Gazette website.
When thieves broke into Benoît Huot’s home in Longueuil last summer, they stole more than just his prized international swimming medals.
The burglary left an open wound on Huot, one of Canada’s most decorated and most popular Paralympic athletes.
“It was tough,” Huot said of the July 26 robbery that claimed seven medals, a television and other sundry items.
“You ask yourself, why?
“I strongly believe it was just a coincidence. They took other things in the house and they happened to find the medals. They were in boxes. They were not even displayed out to see. They probably didn’t even know what it was.”
The affable Huot has begrudgingly come to terms with the fact he may never see those hard-earned medals ever again — but the next best thing occurred Monday when replacement medals were awarded to Huot in a moving ceremony at École Sécondaire Joseph Charbonneau in east-end Montreal.
Hosted by Paralympic champion wheelchair racer Chantal Petitclerc, Huot was awarded five medals — three Commonwealth Games and two Paralympics — from disabled students from the Marie Enfant Rehabilitation Centre. (Two other stolen medals were not replaced.)
Huot, who overcame a club foot disability to reach the Paralympic medal podium 19 times in his sparkling swimming career, said the replacement medals have both personal and public significance.
“Yes, they are individual medals, but they are also Canadian medals. We’ve won them as Canadians. They are part of the country, the culture, the heritage.”
Huot has been overwhelmed by the public reaction to news of the medal theft, which also saw Canadian Tire, one of his sponsors, put up $2,000 in reward money.
“Unfortunately, while we haven’t found the medals, they’ve been replaced.
“I’m going to remember this day for a long time,” the 31-year-old Huot said beaming. “It ranks No. 1 out of the pool.”
Replacing medals is an uncommon gesture, but the Canadian Paralympic Committee and Commonwealth Games Canada saw to it that Huot be given some semblance of redress in the absence of justice.
“I think it really shows that people appreciate Benoît,” said Petitclerc, Canada’s chef de mission for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games and Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.
“He’s not only a great performer in the water, he’s also very generous. … That’s what also is being recognized here. “
Petitclerc related a story about accidentally losing two of her Paralympic bronze medals from the Barcelona Games.
“I was studying in Moncton and I moved back to Quebec, and I have no idea what happened. They weren’t stolen; they were lost. I think they will resurface at some point in a box. It hasn’t happened yet and it is devastating. I think even more so after you retire.
“For Benoît, to have them stolen from your own house, it’s tragic,” Petitclerc added.
“I talked to Benoît at the time of the robbery. It’s fair to say he was emotionally devastated.
“Benoît is probably the same as me. It’s not like you wake up every morning and go stare at your medals. But they are part of your legacy when you have children.
“The reality is those medals are hugely symbolic but you can’t really melt them and become rich from it … because they’re plated gold.
Huot said he plans to loan the duplicate medals to an Olympic museum in Richmond, B.C.
Did Monday’s touching replacement ceremony offer closure?
“I think so,” Huot said, though the gnawing question of what happened to his stolen medals still eats at him.
“I guess, honestly, there is still some hope in me. Who took them and where are they? They have to be somewhere.
After the robbery, Huot placed many of his remaining medals in a safety deposit box.
“It is sad, but I just don’t want to live a story like this ever again.”