Written by Reg McClellan #4
In the history of wheelchair basketball “Wheelchairs Can Jump” the esteemed author and wheelchair basketball guru, Armand (Tip) Thiboutot as a result of a poll conducted on the best woman to ever play the game, wrote a piece on Chantal Benoit. He referred to her as a Class 4 athlete which she played as for most of her career while other hemi-pelvectomy athletes competed in their proper class of 3.5.
He wrote, “Benoit led Canada’s dynastic women’s team that won gold medal after gold medal in the World Championships and the Paralympics during the 1990s and 2000s.”
He went on to write, “a true sportswoman who possessed blazing speed, Benoit was a consummate team player,” and devoted a half page to her performance in the 1992 Barcelona Paralympic final where, “she almost single-handedly eliminated the effectiveness of the U.S.’s backpicking, using her superior speed to free her backpicked teammates.” She went on to score over half of her team’s points in that game, like a lot of matches, to help them earn their first of many Gold Medals.
Growing up in Beloeil, QC she was by all accounts a Tom Boy playing all kinds of sports including any form of hockey where she would always want to be Maurice (Rocket) Richard. She wore his famous number 9 for her career and became affectionately known as Neuf. Her biggest supporter back home during all competitions was her dad Guy, another number 9 from start to finish on the rinks for Quebec.
As a potential Olympic diving athlete, that path was put on hold while she dealt with a misdiagnosed form of cancer resulting in an amputation. Having gone through rehab, she was later introduced to wheelchair basketball and her competitive instincts were not only aroused, but became the focal point of her activities from 1983 on giving her a competitive outlet that included six and seven days per week on court commitments at every level in the game including most of the volunteer events for her local clubs (like the Royal Tip-Off School Program in Ottawa) which Armand (Tip) Thiboutot must have picked up on when he wrote, “possibly the greatest ever woman player and developer of the game at the grass roots level.”
Neuf came into the sport at the national level at a time when women started to receive the same funding as men in Canada. This, the inclusion of a wealth of talent like Kendra Ohama (Gonzo) and the inclusion of many able-bodied women wheelchair basketball players and a coach/es who were all in, provided the women’s team with a winning formula for most of the 1990s and 2000s. It was also a complimentary time for women in the game playing in open competition (competitive events for men and women on court together) in both Canada and the USA. Neuf and her long-time teammate Linda Kutrowski were significant contributors to the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA) Ottawa Royals multiyear final four teams where the best male athletes in Canada and the USA competed to be the best players/teams in North America.
Chantal Benoit playing at the 2011 Spitfire Challenge
The many national and international competitions complimented Neuf’s profile and had a lot to do with her receipt of the IWBF’s Gold Medal Triad award. The Gold Medal Triad is awarded to an individual who has contributed in an outstanding manner to the growth of wheelchair basketball both on a national and international level. This person must be recognized for his/her achievement by a large majority of the wheelchair basketball community. Their outstanding work serves as a model for others to follow. Outstanding contributions to wheelchair basketball be achieved in any area of the sport: by competing as a player, by coaching, officiating, classifying, by serving at the executive and legislative level and through exceptionally effective administration and organization. The role that the award recipient played in the wheelchair basketball community should transcend personal interest and result in the betterment of the entire sport.
The late Elaine Ell who was in communications with the Edmonton Oilers connected Neuf’s play with the likes of an National Basketball Association (NBA) player referring to her as the Michael Jordan of women’s wheelchair basketball.
Having played and coached with Neuf over her career, I can say that she is one of the best teammates you would want to have; she is a go to player with a focus second to none. She is not the world’s best shooter, best passer, best dribbler, but she does have the best and biggest heart that has ever played the game. Like her hockey idol growing up and her dad, she has never drawn a foul but has been fouled many times. In competition she has fire in her eyes and heart when flames are not present and a never die attitude that she carries with her in everything she does.