Diver Meaghan Benfeito reunited with Olympic medals lost in fire
On the evening of January 28, 2021, three-time Olympic medallist diver Meaghan Benfeito lost everything when a major fire destroyed her condo building in Mirabel, a Montreal suburb. Now, four months later, Benfeito has received freshly reproduced Olympic medals that will allow her to put this nightmarish chapter of her life in the rear-view mirror.
Getting these medals couldn’t have come at a better time for Benfeito, with just over month left before the start of Tokyo 2020 where she will compete in both women’s 10m diving events.
Here is a recap of what happened in this sad tale with a happy ending.
Benfeito won her medals in brilliant fashion at the last two Olympic Summer Games. In her second Olympic appearance at London 2012, Benfeito won her bronze medal in the 10m synchro event with longtime partner Roseline Filion.
Four years later at Rio 2016, Benfeito enjoyed a remarkable Games. She once again won synchro bronze on the 10m tower with Filion, her best friend. This performance was the culmination of many years of excellence for the two athletes, who became one of the top diving duos in the world.
Then in the individual 10m event, Benfeito finished third behind China’s Ren Qian and Si Yajie with a total score of 389.20, her biggest breakthrough as a solo diver. While Filion retired following Rio 2016, Benfeito decided to pursue another Olympic cycle.
Unfortunately, these three Olympic medals went up in smoke along with the rest of her belongings when a fire destroyed the home of Benfeito and her partner, football player Alexandre Dupuis.
A balcony in the condo building caught fire, causing a propane tank to explode near the unit occupied by the now-32-year-old diver. The barbecue to which the tank was attached was not lit at the time of the incident.
Although the loss of her physical items certainly hurt, luckily there were no casualties. Benfeito was at home during the event and responded very well under the circumstances, according to firefighters.
“I was on the phone when I heard an explosion,” she said, during an interview on ICI Radio-Canada Première’s Tout un matin program. “I looked at my balcony and I saw the flames. I took my coat, my scarf, I put my boots on and I called 911. I went to see if my downstairs neighbour was okay. He said he was. We went outside.”
A Community Effort
Following the incident, the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) began a process in conjunction with the international Olympic community to produce new medals. This process was not easy, but it was worth it.
The day after the tragedy, under the leadership of Team Canada’s Chef de Mission for Tokyo 2020, Marnie McBean and the COC, a plan was set in motion. On February 3, 2021, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) made the medal reproduction process official. The next month was spent submitting everything from fire department reports to insurance papers to agreements preventing the resale of medals. A medal reproduction is an extraordinary event, which follows an equally extraordinary protocol.
Once the papers were received, reviewed and accepted, on March 2, 2021, the IOC mandated its Olympic Foundation for Culture and Heritage team to reproduce the Olympic medals and certificates. This was done using medals from the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Less than three months after the tragedy, on April 20, 2021, Benfeito’s three Olympic medals began their journey to Montreal to be reunited with their owner.
Benfeito was presented her new medals on Tuesday in a small ceremony at Montreal’s Olympic Park, where Benfeito trains.
Though these medals are obviously not the ones she received in the moments after her Olympic performances, they have a special meaning for Benfeito given the emotional rollercoaster of the last few months. She thanks the Canadian Olympic Committee for its support.
“Medals don’t always mean a lot to everybody, but for athletes they mean absolutely everything. It’s years of hard work. I’ve already cried with Roseline this morning and obviously talking about it now, it’s hard,” Benfeito said during the ceremony.
“Thank you to everybody involved for moving quickly. To my family, you mean the world to me. I wouldn’t be here without you. I wouldn’t be able to push through not only a difficult year, but also all the things that have been thrown at me. I will do all in my possibility and feasibility to win two more medals this summer so that we can celebrate even more.”
Now that this episode is behind her, Benfeito can focus on Tokyo 2020.
Following Filion’s retirement, Benfeito teamed with young Caeli McKay in the 10m synchro event and they quickly developed great chemistry. In May, they booked their Olympic tickets — after more than a year and a half without in-person competition because of the COVID-19 pandemic — when they won gold at the FINA Diving World Cup in Tokyo.
At the 2019 FINA World Championships, Benfeito and McKay had also earned Canada two spots for Tokyo 2020 in the individual 10m event by placing in the top 12. Diving Canada announced the day before her Olympic medal re-presentation that Benfeito was being given an early nomination to one of those spots ahead of the national trials at the end of June.
Benfeito is not the first athlete to receive new medals after losing them under difficult circumstances.
The most famous might be boxer Muhammad Ali, who was presented with a replacement gold medal during Atlanta 1996 for the one he won at Rome 1960 which had been lost decades earlier.
Quebec-born para-swimmer Benoît Huot had a total of seven medals stolen from his home in the summer of 2018. Included in that collection were two Paralympic medals, three Commonwealth Games medals, as well as two Parapan American Games medals. Huot was able to recover five of them.
Elsewhere in the world, a bizarre story earlier this year involved former French Olympic canoeing champion Sandra Forgues, who had her Atlanta 1996 gold medal returned to her thanks to an employee of a highway maintenance company, three years after her home was broken into.
It’s proof that no matter the situation, there’s nothing quite like being reunited with items of great sentimental value. And it was a privilege for us to witness the happy ending for Meaghan Benfeito.
Meaghan Benfeito also lost medals from the Rio 2007 and Toronto 2015 Pan American Games in the fire, which were replaced by Panam Sports and presented to her as well on Tuesday.