DUNEDIN, Fla. â€” When Russell Martin decided to take up swimming as an off-season workout option a year ago, he was amazed at how quickly he progressed in the pool.
It didn’t hurt that his coach and training partner was a nine-time Paralympic gold medallist.
The Blue Jays catcher, who was born in Toronto but raised in Montreal, has trained alongside Longueuil, Que., native Benoit Huot for two straight off-seasons at the Institut National du Sport du Quebec (INS).
“I never really practised swimming in my life, I was never really that interested in it, but as I got older my body was changing and I felt I needed to do some different things to stay in shape,” the 34-year-old Martin said Tuesday at the Blue Jays spring training facility.
“I just wanted to find ways to balance out my body a little bit better and turns out Ben is a really good coach â€” in one session I got a lot better with just a couple techniques he showed me. And he’s a tremendous competitor.”
Huot, who was born with a disability in his right leg commonly known as club foot, won three gold medals in his first Paralympic Games in Sydney in 2000 and followed that up with five more in Athens in 2004. He has a total of 20 Paralympic medals, including a bronze from the Rio Games last summer.
Martin first met Huot years ago through a mutual friend. The two had spoken about training together in the pool but Martin didn’t take Huot up on his offer until last year when Huot took him to INS Quebec for the first time.
Martin said he was amazed at the Montreal facility, which helps develop a number of Canadian Olympic athletes in various sports. He also met short-track speedskater and four-time Olympic medallist Charles Hamelin there during one of his sessions with Huot just before spring training.
“That guy (Hamelin) is a stud too,” Martin said while pulling up a photo on his Instagram of the three athletes posing together in the INS weight room.
“Charles just happened to be there one day. And Ben knows everybody, he’s the nicest guy in the world, so he introduced us. I met him and I was like ‘hey, you’re pretty cool, you won three gold medals, can I take a picture?’ And he was like ‘hey you’re pretty cool too.'”
Martin played 137 games last season â€” and nine more in the playoffs â€” batting .231 with 20 homers and 74 RBIs while dealing with a left knee issue for most of the year.
He underwent arthroscopic surgery in November to remove floating torn cartilage from the knee, a procedure he said he’s fully recovered from now.
While Martin’s knee had “mostly healed” by the time he got in the pool with Huot, he did say that swimming helped in his rehab process and he worked with his physiotherapist to come up with a workout plan he could do underwater.
“I’d start with very easy stuff and I would do them and get back to (my physiotherapist) and tell him it felt good or it felt worse and we’d work together from there,” Martin said. “We got more aggressive each time and the next thing you know the knee just started to feel awesome.”
The exercises, which are listed on a chart Martin still keeps in his locker, consisted mostly of different types of squats sandwiched between a warmup and cooldown of walking in waist-deep water.
Martin said it was easy to train and do his pool-based rehab while surrounded by Olympic-grade athletes.
“In that environment, they’re all really dedicated to what they do so we all have that in common,” he said.
“We all take care of our bodies, we all want to perform. It’s just really easy to get along with people when you share those kinds of similarities.”
Melissa Couto, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version incorrectly stated Huot was born with club feet.