Meaghan Benfeito and Caeli McKay placed a respectful 4th place at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, missing the podium by mere hundredths of a point in the 10-metre synchronized diving competition. They competed together in the Olympics for the first time, the duo finished by mere points away from achieving the bronze medal. Meaghan recently sat down with Milénio Stadium and spoke of her inspiration stemmed from both Emilie Heymans and Alexandre Despatie, and told Milénio she started diving at the age of 7 years old. Today, she feels thrilled inspiring the new generation of divers – despite all the personal sacrifices to become an Olympian, she would do everything over again. The 32 year old Portuguese Canadian, born in Quebec, that participated in her 4th Olympic Games, hasn’t made any commitments towards Paris 2024 – “I’m approaching an age where I’m considered too old to be competitively diving” – although she hasn’t ruled out retirement just yet and is looking forward to a life after diving which includes working with children and her sisters. More inside this issue of Milénio Stadium.
MS: When did you start diving and why did you choose this specific sport?
Meaghan Benfeito: I started diving when I was 7, in 1996. I started with swimming lessons and after every swimming practice, the coaches would always bring us to the diving boards, and they would give us just like five minutes to jump around. I saw Emilie Heymans and Alexandre Despatie on TV and I told my parents I would like to be like them. At the age of 7, they put me in diving, without any other questions and haven’t looked back since.
MS: How do you define yourself as an athlete and how do you keep your focus?
MB: I’m very hard-headed and when I have a goal in mind I do everything in my power to reach it. Lately in the last couple of years I kind of noticed that I’m very resilient, so whatever is thrown at me I kind of always try to overcome it. It’s something that I am very proud of. It’s just fun to see how things turn out as you grow in your career. I’m someone that is very determined also to make my goals come true.
MS: Did you ever feel discriminated against in sports because of your gender?
MB: I have never felt that way at all. In diving, especially in Canada, it’s usually the women that win a lot of medals and I was proud to be part of that team. Obviously, I see it in other sports, but we are very lucky in diving that we are just equal as the men. The only thing that is the different is that the men do more dives than us, but I’m really ok with that (laughs). I know it’s an ongoing battle, but I never felt that in diving, especially in Canada, the women medal more frequently, it creates good competition with the men, pushing one another.
MS: On a sports level, would you say that women are more tough to each other than men?
MB: I think it depends on the sport (laughs). I think we look at each other as rivals more than friends but again I think I am in a sport that whatever country you are from we are literally a huge family. We talk to all our rivals, the Chinese divers are usually the best and whenever I’m on the tower, they have conversations with us, obviously they don’t speak fluent English but just being able to have that conversation and relationship I think it makes it a lot easier. But again, there is no rival in diving.
MS: The Games were postponed because of the pandemic. How were the last two years?
MB: I will try not to cry but they have been extremely difficult…to losing to my grandmothers, the fire [in my Montreal apartment], the pandemic, my synchro partner’s injury, I feel there’s been a bunch of things thrown at me. As I said earlier, being resilient is what I really learned from all this is that whatever happens I have a goal I am going to do everything to make sure it comes true and the goal this time was to make the Tokyo Olympics and I made sure that happened. But I had my ups and downs, I’ve cried and laughed a lot, but I don’t think I would change anything because I’m happy, satisfied and I’m proud of myself for pushing through.
MS: How does it feel to be so close to the podium and not win a medal?
MB: It hurts, it’s heartbreaking, especially when I’ve won two in the last two Olympics. We were 4th at not even half a point which is absolutely nothing in diving, but I think the last two years have made me appreciate life a lot more and not focus so much on results. If you asked me this before the pandemic I would have said “I’m completely broken, sad, disappointed” but with everything that’s happened, you kind of notice that life can just be taken away from you quickly and it can change from one day to another. That made me realize that it is not necessarily the medals that count but more your journey through that. Even though we were 4th, my synchro partner was injured, and we could have possibly not been at the Olympics at all. So going there, pushing through, and fighting until the end, 4th place is more than we could have asked for.
MS: You competed in the Olympics for the first time this year with a new diving partner. Do you think you needed more time to practice with her?
MB: I think everything happens for a reason. But she was at the Olympics, she pushed through. Did we need more time? Obviously, we will take all the time that we can, but we did everything in our power to make sure that we were ready for the event. But I’m very satisfied with how we finished.
MS: What do you learn from one event to the next one?
MB: I learned that you had to have fun and not focus on the results. I went from Beijing to focusing on the results and obviously not getting them and then being super disappointed. Then going into London and appreciating being there and then you came out with a medal and then we kind noticed the more you have fun and the more you enjoy what you are doing that’s really when the results come to you. One dive at the time, that’s what I did in Rio, and it worked extremely well, achieving two medals. As soon as I got to Tokyo, I started enjoying everything, there were rules that we had to follow because of the pandemic but I had fun. The team was awesome, seeing people in person once again from various countries and the key to success was really to have fun.
MS: What kind of sacrifices have you made to be an athlete at this level?
MB: The biggest one that I can think of is, I sacrificed school. After High School I went 100% into diving. I’m not someone that likes to do things halfway. So with the fact that we were travelling every two, three weeks I wasn’t able to just focus on school and diving, I didn’t want to have bad grades so I put my focus into diving – to achieve my personal best. Obviously missing family things – big Portuguese family always has big Portuguese parties, family gatherings -, especially in the last two years with the pandemic. I haven’t seen my grandfather in over a year and a half, I wasn’t allowed to do stuff because of all the rules that I had, going to training, my family we haven’t hugged them in so long. I think those are sacrifices that people don’t always realize, but athletes this is what they go through. But I would sacrifice everything again if I had to go through another cycle. It’s part of being an athlete, it’s part of trying to be the best in the world. But it’s hard, you don’t have a social life, you can’t go out, you can’t drink, you can’t eat junk food, you always want to be on top of the podium, but I’m really grateful to be back and I can’t wait to hug my grandfather.
MS: Do you feel that you can be an inspiration for the next generation?
MB: I think so. My goal was competing and winning medals, but I felt so satisfied when the little kids came up to me and told me that I am their idol, they look up to me or that they want to be like me. In the last couple of days I’ve gotten a lot of messages like that and it warms my heart because I started diving watching the older ones and being on the same team as them, having them helping me through my career was really fun so if I am able to give back to the younger generation, well, then my job is done. I love to inspire and help kids, it’s not because I am an Olympic medalist that I am not going to talk to them. I think it’s very important that they know that they have someone they can rely on.
MS: We recognize you have Portuguese heritage. Where is your family originally from in Portugal and how has the Portuguese background influenced you?
MB: My family is from the Azores, S. Miguel, my grandparents, all four of them came here when they were quite young. They brought all the culture with them. My dad’s parents had a grocery store so they were pretty popular back then. But it’s fun to have two countries support you, it’s absolutely amazing and I am very grateful for that. But I am super Portuguese, everybody in the diving world knows that I represent Canada but they know how deeply Portuguese rooted I am. I cheer for the Portuguese athletes, whether it’s the soccer teams, or track and field athletes whom I’ve shared a close bond with, two countries are always better than one. It’s a small community but very loud. I went there three times and the last time back in 2018, I went to watch the Red Bull Cliff Diving, but when I go there it kind of feels like home, the people are so nice, I am often recognized which is weird since I don’t live there and I can’t wait to go back, it’s nice to be around people that actually care.
MS: What does the future hold for you? Will you compete in the next Olympics?
MB: I am not going make any promises about 2024, I know a lot of people would say it’s only three years away and not four, but it’s a little too far for me. I’m approaching an age where I’m considered old to be competitively diving, I’m not certain on any retirement plans, it left a bittersweet taste finishing 4th and 13th in Beijing, maybe you’ll see me in another event, if I do retire, my immediate goal would be to work in a daycare with my sisters and the eventual plan is to open a daycare center of our own. As I mentioned earlier, our Portuguese heritage is about culture and large families, I have a lot of little cousins, I’m used to being around children and my sisters are already educators, having a family-run daycare is my next goal.
MS: Do you want to have a family of your own one day? Any final comments from your perspective?
MB: I do want to be a mom, I don’t know when, we shall see, it might be in the plan when I decide to retire, hopefully it will be in the future. I do want to thank everyone for their love and support and for everyone to know, that the louder that you cheer for athletes, the more success they will accomplish. Having a strong support system enables me to achieve my personal best, the love that I feel makes me want to dive better and give back to everyone who has supported me throughout my career. So thank you everyone!