On the Road to Rio
Only a few are chosen to be the fastest or the best. Every four years, the Olympics and the Paralympics reveal those chosen to the rest of us.
By Ciarán Breen
The greatest sports show on earth is more than a testament to natural talent, raw speed and incredible precision. It is the final chapter in hundreds of individual stories of struggle, dedication and desire. Almost no one treads a smooth path to the Games; not even the great Usain Bolt has escaped injury and doubt.
We’re proud to feature Canadian athletes who have gone through testing times to make the team in their respective disciplines for Rio 2016: fencer Joseph Polossifakis, sprinter Kim Hyacinthe and swimmer Benoit Huot.
We also feature Kenny Spracklin, an athletic therapist and performance specialist who works with Olympic athletes and was with Team Canada for the Sochi Olympic Games.
Benoît Hout, Swimmer
Benoit Huot has won 28 Paralympic swimming medals, nine of them gold, making him one of Canada’s most decorated sportsmen.
Competing in the S10 para-swim classification, primarily in freestyle and butterfly, Huot has broken over 60 swimming records in his long career. When he hits the water in Rio de Janeiro in September, he will be competing in his fifth Paralympic Games. But ask the Quebec native which of these achievements he cherishes the most he’ll say none of the above. “What I’m most proud of is the way I was able to come back after Beijing and get to London,” says Huot.
The 32-year-old went into the 2008 Paralympics in China as a strong favourite. Though he came home with four bronze medals, the games were a major disappointment for the perennial champion.
In addition to catching a virus in the days before the games, the 200-metre IM world record holder had also, “lost passion for the sport.”
Huot was at a crossroads. But it was far from the first time he had faced adversity: Born with a right clubfoot, Huot required corrective surgery and didn’t begin walking until he was three.
“I didn’t know if I had another four years in me but I knew I couldn’t stop on that note,” he says. “I approached it with a new philosophy, a new approach, a little like when I started the sport as an eight-year-old kid.”
Not only did Huot go on to win gold, silver and bronze medals at the 2012 games in London, he was chosen as Canada’s flag bearer for the closing ceremony. “It’s very unique,” he explains, “It’s not something you can win or something you can control, you have to be chosen. I was very honoured.”
After London, Huot asked himself the same question he asks himself at the start of every season: “Are you still motivated? Are you still engaged? Do you still have the energy?” As the 2013 Para-Swimming World Championships were to be held in Montreal and with the 2015 Parapan Am Games in Toronto on the horizon, Huot had all the incentive he needed.
“I had never had the opportunity in almost 20 years of a career to compete at home, in front of friends, family and Canadians to really increase the awareness and visibility of para-sports,” says Huot. “There was a great opportunity to be part of those games, to promote the movement and educate Canadians on who we are and what we do.”
September’s Paralympics won’t be Huot’s first time competing on Brazilian soil. He competed at the 2007 Parapan Am Games in Rio. Whilst recognizing he won’t have the chance to do much sightseeing, the Canadian is looking forward to continuing his friendly rivalry with Brazilian swimmer Andre Brasil.
“I love the city. It’ll be good to increase the awareness of para-sports, not only in Brazil but around the world.”
When not training for Rio, Huot can be found at the Rogers Centre in Toronto, where his support of the Blue Jays stems from one person in particular: Jays catcher Russell Martin. He reached out to Huot in the recent off-season and they designed an aqua-exercise program aimed at improving Martin’s upper-body strength.
“I realized how he became the best player in the world at his position because of how much of a good student he is,” Huot says. “That’s why when I’m in Toronto I like to go to the Jays game and cheer for Russell.”
Come September, as he swims for his tenth gold medal, there’ll be a whole nation cheering for Huot.
Joseph Polossifakis, Fencer
On Tuesday, April 12, Joseph Polossifakis strode down a catwalk to model the Canadian opening ceremony outfit for the Olympics and Paralympics in Rio. Yet less than two years ago, the prospect of being part of Team Canada 2016 was more than a distant dream for the Canadian fencer.
Part of the national team since 2009, Polossifakis suffered a concussion in July 2014 during a boxing training session, sidelining him from competition for almost a year. “It was the most difficult time of my life by far,” he reflects.
The Montreal born athlete completed a miraculous recovery to return just in time for the start of the qualification process. But there were moments he didn’t think he’d make it to his first Olympic Games: “I couldn’t go out, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t train,” says the left-handed fencer, who competes in the individual and the team sabre. “I was looking at the ceiling wondering if I would ever be able to fence in time to even start the qualifying process. A lot of days were very very dark and difficult.”
Polossifakis suffered further setbacks when he was involved in a car accident, discovered a tumour in his femur and herniated a disc, all within a six-month period. He has taken one stark lesson from those trying times: “I can take a beating in any aspect of life and I’m going to come back.” And come back he did. Still, when his place on the team for Rio was confirmed, Polossifakis says it didn’t feel real. “All these years, you’re always thinking of that moment and how you’d react,” says the McGill University graduate. “My body froze up a bit. My emotions were stuck on neutral. It was so overwhelming.”
His achievement settled in when he was greeted by a welcome-home party upon arrival in Montreal from Korea, where he had been training. “It’s really hard to explain but the feeling of fulfillment and satisfaction is complete.”
As a kid Polossifakis’ sport of choice was soccer. Before getting into fencing, he also trained in kickboxing and played the piano. The 25-year-old started fencing at age 12. “I went to a French high school in Montreal, tried out for the team and I loved it right away.” If he wanted to excel seriously in any of those disciplines he had to make a choice and the sabre proved too tempting. “Fencing just ate up my life. I think I got the right sport in the end and I have no regrets.”
The athlete nicknamed Polo won a pair of silver medals at the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto, an experience he describes as emotional. “I’ve never felt any kind of energy like that, in a crowd of 600 people just cheering for me.”
On August 21, Rio’s Maracanã Stadium will host the closing ceremony of the 31st Olympic Games, bringing an end to 16 days of competition across 28 sports. Dressed all in red, the curtain call will be extra special for Polossifakis, who celebrates his 26th birthday that night. “As a birthday party, to be in the Maracanã stadium with 80,000 watching closing ceremonies, I don’t think there’s a better spot to be. It’s going to be hard to beat that birthday the year after.”
After all he’s been through to get to Brazil, Polossifakis is going to savour every minute of it.
“I think it’s going to be one of the best experience of my life and I’m already ready for it.”
Kenny Spracklin, Athletic Therapist & Performance Specialist
The Olympics and Paralympics in Rio will crown new stars and new heroes, and behind every great athlete and every big sporting victory there’s a guy like Kenny Spracklin.
As an athletic therapist & performance specialist for Olympic and professional athletes, Spracklin gets tremendous pleasure from seeing his clients succeed.
“It feels just as close as you winning or you competing as you can get,” says the Montreal native. “You feel what they’ve gone through; the ups and downs; all the sacrifice; the entire process.”
Spracklin is based in Quebec and is among the top in the world at what he does. He travels with athletes and his training and treatment took him as far as the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, where he helped Team Canada with their medal haul.
Spracklin counts Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Marc-André Fleury among his clients. He has also worked with snowboarder Dominique Maltais and freestyle skier Alexandre Bilodeau, both two-time Olympic medalists.
He became an athletic therapist as a result of his own love of sports. Spracklin remembers playing hockey from the age of four and says, “My dreams were always to be the guy competing, to be the athlete.” Raised in the Eastern Townships, he was a huge Ray Bourque fan in his youth and remembers receiving the first hat in what has become a collection of almost 100. “My first was a Boston Bruins hat. I think I wore it for six years straight.”
While his own first love was Hockey, the Concordia graduate now has the pleasure of working across a plethora of disciplines and he is loath to pick a favourite. “I really enjoy the variety. It never gets stale,” says the 30-year-old. “No matter who I work with, whether it be a snowboarder or a gymnast, everybody’s different.”
Working with elite performers from so many sports, Spracklin is able to share some insight into the differences between athletes: “When you look at pro athletes versus Olympic athletes there’s a huge difference in mentality,” he says. “I find the drive is so much stronger with Olympic athletes. They don’t have even close to the salary and endorsement deals that a pro athlete will get yet they’re the ones that are going to give you everything.”
A biking and camping enthusiast, Spracklin has climbed Mount Everest and finds that part of his work is getting athletes to reimagine their limits. He says that 90% of his job is motivation. “It’s such a mental game for athletes – they go through injuries or plateaus in training,” he says.
“Let’s say you crashed last year at the race, now it’s the World Cup and you crashed the year before in the same place oh but now it’s the Olympics and you’re on the same course – that’s a big mental block. Giving someone confidence to move past that, they have to self-realize it but you have to give them the tools.”
Spracklin says athletes are very visual learners like himself: “The more visual you can be and feedback you can give the easier it is to comprehend and move past a block.”
A firm believer in holistic approaches to treatment, he suggests there is still a lot of untapped potential when it comes to performance and the human body.
“You really need to be able to control the movement, control the power, and control the strength,” says Spracklin. “Once you can do that, then you can evolve and get as crazy as you can. That’s were training is really going to get into some fun stuff. Controlling movement patterns is the future.”
So how does the therapist cope when he needs treatment himself? “I’m not a very sedentary person so I like to push the limit sometimes, “he says. “I recently hurt my knee in an outdoor charity hockey tournament. Sometimes my schedule doesn’t allow me to be as diligent as I’d like to, but I try to practice what I preach.”
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