As part of their 50th anniversary celebration, the University of Calgary Dinos athletic department trusted me to write profiles about each inductee into the Dinos Hall of Fame, Class of 2017. I’ll post the profiles I wrote as they get released over the next two weeks. It was a pleasure to work with the university. I am very thankful for their trust.
Enshrined in Halls of Fame all over the place, Mark Tewksbury is one of the most recognizable faces in Canadian Olympic sports history, and now immortalized in the University of Calgary Dinos Hall of Fame.
Long before he stormed back over the last 50 metres in lane five, overtaking previous world record holder Jeff Rouse by six one-hundredths of a second to claim gold in the Olympic 100-metre backstroke, Tewksbury was an integral part of one of the greatest swimming dynasties the country has ever seen.
Growing up in Calgary, graduating from Bishop Carroll High School, Tewksbury had plenty of post-secondary options to choose from. Schools like Stanford and the University of Texas came knocking, but Tewksbury thought it was important to stay close to home.
Tewksbury had been training with the Dinos Swim Club since he was 14 years old. Wanting to be Canadian-trained, he chose to stay with the Dinos, arriving on campus in 1985.
FROM POWERHOUSE DINOS TO THE FIVE-RING CIRCUS
Joining a program that already won five straight Canada West championships and four straight national titles from 1981-85, Tewksbury fit in seamlessly, competing every day at practice with future Olympians.
“Even though swimming is an individual sport, you really need a team to help pull you through the long practices,” said Tewksbury. “There was always somebody pushing world-record pace at the turn, holding the standards pretty high for the rest of the group.”
Following his third season with the Dinos, Tewksbury cracked the Olympic roster that was headed for Seoul, South Korea, alongside Dinos teammates Tom Ponting, Gary Vandermeulen, Darren Ward and Jonathan Cleveland, in 1988.
Tewksbury finished fifth in 100m backstroke, 18th in the 200-metre backstroke and captured the silver with a time of 3:39.28 in the 4 x 100-metre medley relay, accompanied by Ponting, Sandy Gross and Victor Davis.
Seoul left a sour taste in Tewksbury’s mouth. There was a cloud hanging over the Canadian Olympic team following Ben Johnson’s performance, and the Olympics weren’t all that he thought they were cracked up to be.
Returning to Calgary, Tewksbury took the next six months off from the pool.
“At that point, I was unsure about attending the next Olympics. It’s a big commitment to train for four years,” said Tewksbury.
He spent the next six months talking to 20,000 students all over Alberta, about the Olympics and sport, when he eventually talked himself into a return to the pool.
TRAINING FOR GOLD
Along the way, Tewksbury ran into Debbie Muir, a former Olympic champion synchronized swimming coach, at the 1986 World Aquatic Championships in Madrid, Spain. The two really connected after the 1991 World Aquatic Championships in Perth, Australia.
The book was out on Tewksbury – he was like a speedboat once he got on top the water – but other swimmers were passing him beneath the surface.
“Mark realized he had to work on his underwater kick, and that is kind of a synchronized swimming thing. We worked a lot on his technique and his preservation of his energy while under water,” said Muir.
The innovative cross-sport training paid off, and Tewksbury conquered the world. He erased a half-body length deficit at the turn, pouring it on in the final 25 metres of the 100-metre backstroke final during the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, capturing gold and setting a then-Olympic record with a time of 53.98 in front of friends, family, and a worldwide TV audience.
“Mark always believed that he could get there. Just go back and watch the race; he was impossibly far back at the 50,” said Tewksbury’s former Dinos coach, Mike Blondal. “I was in the stands and it was pretty amazing to watch him gun down world record holders the way he did.”
He was also a member of the bronze medal winning 4 x 100-metre medley relay, along with former Dinos teammates Cleveland and Ponting.
Most athletes would ride the wave of being an Olympic champion for the remainder of their days. Not Tewksbury, though.
His resume is extraordinary: 10 gold, two silver, and one bronze at the CIAU championships; the Lou Marsh award in 1992 as Canada’s male athlete of the year; a two-time Dinos athlete of the year; an Olympic gold medallist. But it all pales in comparison to his success as a humanitarian away from the pool over the last quarter century.
LIFE AFTER SWIMMING FOCUSED ON SERVICE
The Dinos provided Tewksbury the coaching, training and means necessary to set him up for a successful life in the pool, but also provided him with the proper mindset to propel his post-swimming career.
“I wouldn’t have become the person I am today without that base from life in sport. I am so proud and I feel fortunate for the success that I was able to parlay into success into life after sport,” said Tewksbury. “My business these days is based on distilling the experiences and lessons that I learned into the business world as a mentor.”
These days, when Tewksbury is introduced at events, he likes to refer to himself as a humanitarian champion first, then an Olympic champion.
Tewksbury officially retired from swimming in 1992 and teamed up with Muir once again to create The Great Traits, a company established to deliver engaging, unique workshops and online programs designed to help people get the best qualities out of themselves.
“Mark is a brilliant story teller. He loves to share stories with the world, He is always thinking of ways to try and inspire people, help anyone, anytime, reach their goals,” said Muir.
LEADER IN THE LGBT COMMUNITY
In December of 1998, he became the first openly gay Canadian athlete, and the world wasn’t so kind to him back then.
He dealt with the criticism as best he could. It was nothing new to Tewksbury, having been singled out all his life for his orientation. He used the fuel from his past and turned it into lesson, helping others deal with situations that are stacked against them.
“My service life has been so amazing, I feel so passionate about things like the Special Olympics. Kids with Down syndrome or intellectual disabilities — I really understand what they have gone through, having grown scared up as a gay kid,” he explained. “I was scared and in a different world, being excluded and picked on. Because of that experience in my life, it’s been really meaningful to turn something that was really difficult into something really positive for myself and being positive for other people, too.”
Tewksbury has been heavily involved with sports following his swim career. He was a member of the 1996 International Olympic Committee Site Inspection Commission, he co-founded the Olympic Advocates Together Honourably — an athlete-led movement for the spirit of ethical sport. He was the co-president of the organizing committee for the 2006 Outgames in Montreal, a swimming analyst for CBC during the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China, sits on the board of directors for Special Olympics Canada and was Canada’s Chef de Mission for the London 2012 Summer Olympics.
He received an honourary degree from the University of Calgary in 2010, honouring his accomplishments inside and away from the pool.
“Being named the Chef de Mission for the Olympics was a huge honour. It took a lot of hard work and over 2,000 volunteer hours to get it done,” said Tewksbury. “I didn’t think from that point of view, growing up as a kid, that I could be open about who I am and be in such a senior leadership position with the Olympics.
Tewksbury is constantly speaking to groups, athletes and non-athletes, trying to share his inspirational messages as a mentor.
“What Mark is doing now, is the most inspiring part of his career,” said Blondal. “He is a leader in sport, a leader in LGBT rights, fair play for everyone, highly involved in the Special Olympics and a leader at the Olympic level. He has contributed so many times, giving back over and over in his lifetime.”