Caeli McKay was overwhelmed by a 2017 move from her native Calgary to Montreal, where she joined the national diving team as a 16-year-old. She knew little of her new partner, three-time Olympic bronze medallist Meaghan Benfeito, and nothing about her other teammates.
“The new environment was huge, and I had no experience,” McKay, now 21, told CBC Sports on Tuesday. “Meg welcomed me. If I was anxious or stressed out, she told me I didn’t need to feel nervous, that I belonged.
“I lived with Meg and her family for five months. We would drive to the pool and home together. Growing our relationship made it easier to feel comfortable.”
Now, Benfeito needs a helping hand after the third-floor condo she shared with boyfriend and Canadian Football League player Alexandre Dupuis in Mirabel, Que., burned to the ground following a fire that broke out between 6:15 and 6:25 p.m. ET on Jan. 28.
Home alone, Benfeito was on the phone when a barbecue propane tank exploded on the balcony of the unit directly below her on the second floor. The 31-year-old Montreal native grabbed her scarf, jacket, keys, put on her boots and called 911 at 6:27 p.m., only minutes away from when Benfeito usually took her nightly 45-minute bath at 6:30.
WATCH | Benfeito: ‘I think being an athlete did help me react quickly’:
“I’m really trying hard not to cry. I’m overwhelmed with love. We’re alive, we’re healthy and we can still do what we love to do.”
Benfeito’s teammates reached out immediately, with McKay reaching her idol, mentor and close friend by phone about 20 minutes after the explosion while Benfeito sat in a police car with her father. Out of the blue, said McKay, she received a picture on her phone from Benfeito of a balcony on fire.
“Please tell me that’s not your [condo],” McKay recalled asking Benfeito. “She was crying, very upset and shaken. She said, ‘I don’t have anything, my clothes or my [Olympic] medals. Everything is gone.’ We talked for a bit and I tried to make sure she was OK.
“Unfortunately, with the [8 p.m. coronavirus] curfew in Quebec, I wasn’t able to think about bringing her anything that night. When I got off the phone, I went to my bedroom to pack her a suitcase of clothes, bathing suits and training stuff.”
‘More mentally drained than physically’
“I think I’m more mentally drained than physically,” said Benfeito, who surprised her teammates by returning to practice on Monday, a day before she was named Diving Canada’s top female athlete for 2020. “I think I cried [for] two minutes when I saw Jen [Abel], Caeli and Pam [Ware]. I wanted to hug them but can’t.
WATCH | Benfeito relying on support from loved ones following condo blaze:
“Everybody on the team has been amazing. Caeli has been there through it all — in 2019 when I lost my grandmother, [whenever] I got injured and then when COVID happened. I think [the pandemic] has made us closer than we ever thought we would be.
“She brought me a tea this morning and I’m dressed in Caeli’s [hoodie] now. I think I’ve said thank you a million times the last five days, but I don’t think it’s enough to repay anybody that’s been there for me.”
Over $30,000 raised on GoFundMe
It could be several months before the International Olympic Committee presents Benfeito with her replacement medals from 2012 (10-metre synchro) and 2016 (10m synchro and individual 10m).
The fire is the latest stress felt by Benfeito and Dupuis, who didn’t play one second of football as Edmonton’s fullback in 2020 after the CFL cancelled its season in August because of COVID-19 and lost jerseys, trophies and autographed footballs from ex-teammates in the fire.
Melanie Rinaldi, one of Benfeito’s former teammates, set up a GoFundMe page to help the couple move forward. A total of $31,536 of the target goal of $100,000 had been raised as of 9 p.m. on Tuesday.
Before the fire, McKay said her and Benfeito often spoke about and looked at dream houses, and where they wanted to buy.
“Maybe she can find something positive out of this and find somewhere she wants to live,” said McKay, adding the duo is preparing to compete at the April 18-23 Diving World Cup in Tokyo that will double as the sport’s final qualifier for the Olympics this summer.
“I’ve been bugging Alex so much … to buy a house because I [didn’t] like living in a condo. I think it’s too small,” added Benfeito, who grew up in a house with her parents and younger twin sisters, Alicia and Chelsea. “I don’t know if we’re eventually going to buy a house, but I’m going to cross my fingers.”