Tewksbury cookin' up Olympic dreams

ALISON KORN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:18 AM ET

The road to the 2012 London Summer Olympics just got a lot more exciting, humorous and high-energy with Mark Tewksbury named as chef de mission for the Canadian Olympic Team.

The charismatic swimming icon, also one of the few publicly gay Olympic athletes, has been sharing his hard-earned wisdom through speeches, books and TV work ever since he won a backstroke gold medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

With Tewksbury’s appointment, his mentoring and leadership of the next generation in sport has now become more formalized.

“Empathy, compassion, experience and expertise is what I really can’t wait to share with the athletes, as well as a total relation,” said Tewksbury. “I understand what the athletes are going through and will make sure they get through it as best they can. I’ve kind of been doing that very quietly over the past number of years.”

It’s true. Fellow athletes love and respect this guy and many of them have already met him or heard him speak. Over the past few Olympic cycles, Tewksbury has parachuted in to weekend pre-Olympic and post-Olympic workshops for athletes, delivering candid, moving presentations to them on topics like excellence, winning, retiring from sport and finding yourself.

Kyle Shewfelt, a 2004 Olympic gold medallist gymnast from Calgary, was one of those blown away by Tewksbury’s presentation following the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

“He has an amazing ability to just connect with everyone on so many different levels,” said Shewfelt, who joked that the news had him tempted to make a comeback. “Mark has presence. He walks in to a room and he just makes you want to be better.”

A three-time Olympic medallist, Tewksbury, 42, swam to a gold medal in the 100-metre backstroke at the Barcelona 1992 Olympic Games, and also collected bronze (1992) and silver (1988) medals in the men’s 4x100-metre medley relay. He won four gold medals through two Commonwealth Games appearances (1986 and 1990) and two silver medals at the 1991 world aquatic championships.

Tewksbury was master of ceremonies for the Dalai Lama’s appearances in Ottawa in 2007 and Calgary in 2009, and addressed the United Nations on human rights in 2008.

As the Canadian team’s chef de mission, Tewksbury will take on the role of official representative and spokesman and will be a key member of the overall leadership team for Canada’s participation in the 2012 Olympics.

“He’s someone that every athlete looks up to and he is able to just be so personable,” said Shewfelt. “He’s real. He’s an ordinary person who did something exceptional and that provides us with hope.”

When Tewksbury speaks, it’s always interesting. You’re either peeing your pants laughing or close to tears. He tells of growing up gay in Calgary and hiding it from everyone except his confidante, Debbie Muir, an Olympic synchronized swimming coach to whom he turned for help improving his underwater kicking.

The two co-wrote a 2008 book, The Great Traits of Champions, outlining fundamentals for achievement, leadership and creating legacy. As an example of their innovation, Muir described how they created special Thursdays for Tewksbury since the Olympic final race was scheduled for a Thursday.

Special Thursdays

“About three months before the Olympics, we decided to make Thursdays the day of the week that he would really look forward to,” Muir writes. “We made it like a performance day, meaning there was some pressure built in to the training and at the same time, we linked it to fun. We would go for a dinner, a coffee, a movie, whatever. At first, Mark was overtired and dreaded doing something fun. But with time, when Mark woke up on a Thursday he would automatically know that something challenging but good and fun was going to happen to him.”

That’s the kind of rich, inspiring detail that’s potentially quite helpful to an athlete that Tewksbury tends to share.

As for the whole gay angle, it’s become old news. When Tewksbury announced publicly in December 1998 that he was gay, he was the first Canadian athlete to do. His 2006 autobiography was titled Inside Out: Straight Talk from a Gay Jock. Yet the chef de mission announcement contained no mention of his activism.

“I feel like I’ve really said all I’ve had to say on those issues,” said Tewksbury. “I’m obviously who I am and I’ve been very open with that.”

Great choice for the team.

alison_korn@hotmail.com


Videos

Photos