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Canada’s megawatt cheerleader

Mark Tewskbury is gunning for gold in London

Mark Tewksbury has been a poster boy for the Olympics and one of its toughest critics. He landed on the cover of Time after winning a gold medal in the 100 metre backstroke in the 1992 Olympics (and a bronze in the relay). He also accused the International Olympic Committee of rampant corruption in 1998 and lambasted Swimming Canada for a disastrous performance in the 2004 games (when the swim team failed to win a single medal).

As one of the highest-profile gay athletes in the world (he came out to the media in ’98), Tewksbury marvels at his return to the heart of Olympic action as Canada’s chef de mission to the London games (that begin July 27).

“I would never imagine that coming out, speaking out against the Olympic movement, all the things that I did, would lead me back to the most important and influential position for the team at the games,” says Tewksbury.  “I’m so glad to be chef now…. The COC gets that the hard work is in the trenches between the coaches and the athletes, year in year out. Naming me, a former athlete, as chef is an extension of that.”

What exactly is the chef de mission?

“That’s the million dollar question,” he says, laughing. “The chef de mission is an IOC term. That person is the head of [a country’s] delegation. It’s the ultimate authority in the Olympic world, the only person who can actually take away accreditations — and everyone on each team needs accreditation.”

Tewksbury calls the Olympics “this magical thing” — the number and variety of athletes involved, the four-year gap, the buildup, the hoopla. “Our job is to take away all of the distractions, make sure things go really seamlessly, so that the athletes’ experience is the centrepoint.”

To say Tewksbury is keyed up about Canada’s appearance at the games is beyond obvious. With his megawatt smile at full beam, he says he is undaunted by the 20-hour days that lie ahead. Like the athletes he’s supporting, he wants medals and lots of ’em. It’s a demanding and confident outlook that builds upon Canada’s success at the Vancouver winter games. “For me what’s exciting is if we get what we call dark horses,” he says. “We know who the medal favourites are, but we need people who are slightly off the radar, people ranked eighth to 16th at the Worlds, to have some breakthroughs. Because that’s what’s necessary for us to reach our goal of top 12.  

“I love an underdog…. I think that has something to do with the LGBT story. The euphoria of going in 16th and surprising everybody and getting on the podium is just off the radar. That’s something that ignites the whole team.”

Another Vancouver hallmark, the increased visibility of LGBT athletes through Pride House, will continue in London, though, sadly, in a scaled-back version. For Tewksbury, who still gives gay talks in high schools, it’s still about “baby steps.”

“There’s never been a more out chef,” he says. “That’s something, too, right? Isn’t success leading by example? It’s visibility.

“The fact that I’m gay and chef de mission is a non-issue.

“On a private level, I’m still contacted constantly by various gay or lesbian athletes. Sometimes it’s just to lend an ear. Sometimes it’s for support. Sometimes it’s for advice. Sometimes it’s just about performance — I know the person talking to me is a gay or lesbian athlete, but we’re just talking about performance, athlete to athlete. There’s sort of an unspoken connection, so you don’t need to go there. There’s a level of trust and intimacy that lets some things come out that are really powerful.”

Tewksbury is eager to see so many sports live, but he admits to one special attachment. “I was always a closeted synchronized swimming fan. And not just because of all the makeup, the gel, and the music. They are amazing athletes — to hold your breath underwater for a minute, while exerting all that energy, as if you are running the 400-metre hurdles, in perfect synchronization!”

The sport has another attachment for Tewksbury: His business partner, Debbie Muir, coached the national synchronized team to two Olympic gold medals and seven world championships. Following the games, Tewksbury will focus full-time on their Calgary-based corporate motivation and training company The Great Traits. “We’re a pretty great duo.”