He will be the face of Canada at this summer’s London Olympics. The quintessential prairie boy turned gold medallist turned gay athlete standard-bearer turned Olympic rebel turned motivational speaker. That’s more turns than he ever made in that Barcelona pool 20 long, hard years ago when Mark Tewksbury became a true Canadian hero by touching first in the men’s 100 metre backstroke.
Fast forward two decades. Tewksbury is chef de mission for the Canadian team going to the Summer Games. It is a nebulous term but essentially he will be front and centre, the go-to man for athletes, the media and, ultimately, armchair fans across the nation.
If there were gold medals awarded for how much you can shake your head in disbelief then he’d have a second to loop around his neck.
“Obviously, to quit the Olympic movement 12 years ago and say I would never be back — well I learned the hard way that you should never say never. “Circumstances change. I was younger and back then life was a lot more black and white. Things have changed, both for me and for the international sports world but, more importantly, with the Canadian team,” he said.
A dozen years ago Tewksbury publicly denounced the International Olympic Committee (IOC) with emotive language including taboo words such as corruption. That broadside followed his sexual “coming out” which, then as now, is not a tactic that wins friends and influences people in the world of sport.
Yet, here he is, on a Good Friday morning at a Calgary coffee shop, talking excitedly about how Canadian athletes are ready to meet the challenge at these Games. He’s not sure if he’s come in from the cold or whether he’s a human example of global warming.
Regardless he is pumped about his role. “We are aiming for top 12. It will be pretty tough. There is just such a difference between the Summer and Winter Games for Canada. “Still, I don’t buy that the success in Vancouver has increased the pressure. But I do think we have higher expectations because of it. I think the London team will be really inspired by the success of the athletes at the Vancouver Olympics,” said Tewksbury.
He likes the competitors’ attitude. “Some of the words the team are using to describe themselves such as relentless, fierce, unbreakable — it’s really a step away from the friendly, supportive and other such usual Canadian words.”
He applied and was appointed two years ago following an eye-opening experience at the Vancouver Olympics where he gave a pep talk to Canadian athletes on the eve of the Games. “It was just a magical experience. “There was such a team focus in Vancouver. I realized this was all about the team and that sort of experience was something I could sink my teeth into. “Those Games shifted my own perspective and I thought ’Wow there is a chance to be part of this,’” he said.
He applied for the chef role — an unpaid position — and was elated to be selected. “The job of chef is interesting. It’s a very public figure. That’s why I was appointed two years out and am regarded as the face of the team. What I hope to do is take some of the pressure off the athletes,” said Tewksbury.
Many athletes are still trying to qualify but Tewksbury expects the final count of those going to London to be between 300 and 320.
These days Tewksbury says he spends more time on airplanes than anywhere else but divides any spare time between Calgary and Montreal.
“My mom, brother and sister are here in Calgary and it is still home. It has changed though it is hard to gauge … how much is due to seeing the city through a different set of eyes — how much have I changed and how much the city? “I am a huge fan of densely populated urban populations and the East serves that up a bit better — the New Yorks and the Montreals — but the thing about the East, with all that history, is that it can be really binding and limiting.
“What I love about Calgary is that free spirit. You don’t have to come from an old-money family to succeed, you just have to have some ingenuity.”
Public speaking engagements following his swimming achievements turned into a corporate training career though he is happy to put his management workshops on hold to concentrate, once again, on the Olympics.
His sexuality, so long an issue, was unimportant in his appointment — something he welcomed. “Look, I’m not the gay chef. I’m just the chef. We don’t want anything to distract the team. There’ll be no rainbow shirts,” he said.
Still, Tewksbury admits he is disappointed that, 14 years since he publicly announced he was gay, he remains the only top flight Canadian athlete who has taken such a step. He’s tired of being the standard bearer. “I wish there was an easy answer. Sports itself is so conservative. There is an old-boys mentality and it is just that much more insulated.
“I came out in ’98 and I thought then that in 10 years this would not be an issue, yet it still is. I really try not to be the go-to guy on this anymore because I don’t really have anything more relevant to say. I have said it all.
“It is a very personal issue. I dreaded going public but even coming out to my coach and telling her — and she was the only person I told at that time — was partly why I won the gold because all this incredible energy that had been channelled inside could now be channelled to the outside goal.”
Tewksbury, now 42, is still trim and fit but he doesn’t swim much anymore. It was, in his words, two lifetimes ago. These days downhill skiing is his focus. “I’m just learning to get down that mountain.”
Mountains. For a man defined by the level swimming pool, he has a remarkable understanding of those.