Chantal Benoit, 58, still has the determination and passion for one of Canada’s most successful women’s para sports, and continues to play wheelchair basketball with the Vaughan City Lashers.
Benoit will celebrate three decades of achievement on May 31, when she enters the Ottawa Sport Hall of Fame at Lansdowne Park’s Horticultural Building.
“It’s an honour and very touching,” says Benoit, a champion for sport inclusion who played in seven Paralympic Games for Canada and won four medals, including three gold.
“I’ve tried to develop awareness for wheelchair basketball (especially through visits to schools). I have been surrounded by people who have given me this opportunity and they deserve the same award.”
Turning tragedy into determination
As a 17-year-old, Grade 12 student, Benoit developed bone cancer in her left leg and needed to have it amputated. During rehabilitation in Montreal, she was asked to go to the gymnasium to try wheelchair basketball. She felt insulted and refused to go as her main goal was to learn how to walk again with a prosthetic.
Two years later, a friend phoned her and caught her at the right moment. Benoit was bored and looking for something to do. Her friend invited her to come and play wheelchair basketball, which was going to be a demonstration sport at the 1983 Quebec Summer Games.
“I said, ‘why not?’ Oh my God, it was so fast, so quick and the people were having fun. That’s what I decided to do. My friend developed a team (Kamikazes) at the end of 1983,” Benoit said.
“I use that story for every school awareness program. At the end of the day, don’t make a judgment on something you don’t know anything about. Go see it.”
The Kamikazes practiced and participated in the first Canadian championships in 1984. While the team didn’t have a lot of success, Canadian Women’s Wheelchair Basketball team staff took notice of Benoit and invited her to a national women’s team selection camp.
Benoit made her international debut for Canada at the 1984 Paralympic Games, which were staged in Stoke-Mandeville, England, for wheelchair basketball. The rest of the Games were held in New York City. It was the last time the Paralympics were not held in the same city as the Summer or Winter Olympic Games.
“That was something. I was very excited,” said Benoit about the entire Paralympics experience. “I couldn’t speak English. The communication was a little bit tough, but I can thank Lucy (Raiche) from Bathurst, N.B. She translated everything for me. She was an extremely big help.”
That was the start of a national team career and it seemed like it would last forever. When it did come it a bitter close in 2011, Benoit could reflect on a career that brought her an abundance of happiness.
A determined athlete who played a huge role over 27 years in the development and unprecedented success of the Canadian women’s team program, Benoit left the national team during a 2011 international qualifying tournament game. She was upset with her diminished role on the team.
For more than a year, she battled to return to the team, but couldn’t accept the national sport governing body’s terms for attending a team tryout camp. Benoit says she has never officially retired, but has accepted the idea that she’ll never play on the national team again, although she feels she could still contribute, if she had a year to regain her basketball fitness.
During her 27-year campaign, she was considered the best female wheelchair basketball player in the world. Her trademarks were her speed, quickness, anticipation and game instincts. She was always an emotional player, who thrived for the victory.
“Instincts brought me great success along with my love of the game. If you’re down by 20 (points), it’s not done. You play until the last second. That was always the case for me,” she explained.
Benoit was a major contributor to the Canadian team winning gold medals in three straight Paralympic Games in 1992, 1996 and 2000. She also earned a bronze in 2004 and had fourth-place finishes in 1994 and 1988 and a fifth in 2008.
For the 2004 Paralympic Games, Benoit was selected as the Canadian team flagbearer for the opening ceremony in Athens.
“It was emotional. I wanted to have the full team hold the flag, but they were all behind me,” she said.
During Team Canada’s dynasty years, she also was an instrumental leader in four gold-medal (1994, 1998, 2002 and 2006) and two bronze-medal (1990 and 2010) performances at the world championships.
Her international trophy case also would include five medals from the Gold Cup tournament—first place in 1994, 1998, 2002 and 2006 and third place in 1990—as well as silver medals from the 1986 and 2007 Para Pan American Games. Benoit was the MVP of the 1998 Gold Cup.
While playing in the National Women’s Wheelchair Basketball League, she helped the L.A. Sparks win gold in 2001 and silver in 2003 and was twice named the circuit’s MVP.
Locally, Benoit played for the Ottawa Royals, Ottawa Shooters and Ottawa Jazz in the Ottawa-Carleton Wheelchair Sports Association and won five gold, three silver and five bronze medals in the Canadian Women’s Basketball League. Individually, she was named an all-star 10 times and earned the most valuable player award on three occasions.
Nicknamed Neuf referring to her No. 9 jersey, Benoit’s accomplishments also have earned her some major individual awards. Earlier this year, she received the Order of Canada during a ceremony in Quebec City.
In 2000, the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation presented Benoit with its highest honour, the Gold Medal Triad Award, for contributing in an outstanding manner to the growth of wheelchair basketball domestically and internationally.
“As a player, Chantal was an absolute force at the international level and is one of the most decorated athletes in the history of the sport,” Wheelchair Basketball Canada executive director Wendy Gittens said in a press release to announce Benoit receiving the Order of Canada.
“As an individual, Chantal exemplifies what it means to be a world leader on and off the court. She is a remarkable ambassador for the game and a tireless champion of inclusion.”
Benoit lives in Vaughan, ON., and is the office manager for 49 Bespoke with her husband and company owner Reg McClelland, who she said also played a significant role in her development as an athlete.
Celebrate Chantal Benoit’s induction into the Ottawa Sport Hall of Fame on Friday, May 31 at the Horticulture Building—it’s going to be a remarkable night of entertainment and networking. Buy your tickets online before they sell out.