Saturday, December 9, 2023

Olympian Mark Tewksbury Talks About Life As An Openly Gay Man As He Hits A Milestone

Twenty years to the day he made history as Canada’s first openly gay Olympian, Mark Tewksbury returned to the Toronto theatre for his one-man show, Mark Tewksbury – 50 & Counting, where, on December 15, 1998, the athlete went public about his sexuality. The Calgary native’s coming-out announcement 20 years ago created a media storm, especially at a time when it was fairly unthinkable for a highly-decorated athlete – or any sports figure for that matter – to be openly gay. (In fact, Tewksbury says he later lost a six-figure engagement as a motivational speaker for a financial institution because he was “too openly gay.”)

Fortunately, the mood wasn’t as intense when the activist-leader-motivational speaker appeared at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in downtown Toronto. In fact, the evening was about celebration and reflection.

“You succeed in life when you are true to who you are, when you let your genuine side reveal itself. Being authentic is what matters.”

Tewksbury, who recently turned 50, marked the 20thanniversary of his highly-publicized coming out by launching a one-man show on the very stage he stood on two decades earlier. He talks about many aspects of self-growth and change befitting, says the former champion swimmer, “any man who’s just entered his 50s.”

Through reflection and flashbacks, to the accompaniment of underwater photography by Lucas Murnaghan, the multiple Olympic medalist explored “change in the landscape of self and society” as he shared personal moments from his journey as a public figure. “I explore notions of pride, social justice, home and fame,” says Tewksbury. “Turning 50 last February was an epiphany for me, prompting me to reflect on things I’d like to share with people, regardless of their background.”

“Like many people at this stage of life, I’ve had moments when I wonder: ‘How did I get to this spot in my life? What has my journey meant?’” says Tewksbury, who once appeared on the cover of Time magazine and has won 21 national titles, seven world records, and three Olympic medals.

His journey since his competition days have been packed: Tewksbury has written two books and co-authored a third with former swim coach Debbie Muir, also his partner in Great Traits, a training and development company. In 2012, Tewksbury was the chef de mission for the Canadian Olympic team competing in London. He’s been a motivational speaker, a broadcaster, fulfilled master of ceremonies duties for the Dalai Lama, taken up the position of chair of Special Olympics Canada and is a global leader on LGBT sport issues.

YouAreUNLTD caught up with Tewksbury to hear more about the experiences that have shaped him and the life lessons he’s learned since his time as an Olympic competitor.

Olympian Mark Tewksbury reflects on life upon turning 50. Photo: Courtesy of Lucas Murnaghan,

Hiding your true self will cost you.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s this: You succeed in life when you are true to who you are, when you let your genuine side reveal itself. Being authentic is what matters.”

“I struggled and agonized alone during as a competitive athlete in my twenties. Life was very different in the late ‘80s and early 1990s for LGBTQ people. Luckily, at the 1992 Olympics, there was a woman who created a space for me just to feel like I could talk to her openly and honestly and be myself without any repercussions whatsoever. That was so incredibly empowering. I made a seven-year improvement (in the pool) in 10 months. That’s the cost of human potential when you have to keep a secret and hide. Somebody honoured who I was and by doing that, I could tap into my best.”

Allow your humanity to come through.

“Whenever I’m facilitating a workshop I allow my humanity to come through – whether it’s a flaw, or often, my silly side. That let’s people see me as a human, not necessarily as an Olympic athlete. I think that’s part of my legacy. That’s an essential part of me.

 Pushing your boundaries is important at all stages of our lives. It’s how we continue to grow.

“I recently participated in an underwater photography shoot (which is part of my one-man show) and it was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do in a pool. You have to more or less blow out 90 percent of your air and go down three metres in the pool – but look natural and smile. You come up to the surface, tread water, and then go back down repeatedly. In one of the photos, I had to wear a business suit. It was my least favourite part of the photo shoot because the clothes would fill up with air and water, and you have to pull everything down.  Was I comfortable at first? Not at all. It was very uncomfortable – but it turned out to be my favourite photo. The boundaries we choose to push can take any form.”

Everyone’s journey is different and it’s important to honour that.

“When I finally told my parents that I was gay shortly after the 1992 Olympics, they reacted with tears. Based on their reaction, I instantly knew there was no way I was going to tell my agent, my sponsors or the media. I honestly felt I would have to keep my secret to myself or I’d lose everything. All that I’d work for would be taken away from me. That was my reality at that time.”

Curiously, not long ago I was visiting with some friends in New York who live openly as a gay couple. I was astonished to learn they’re not out to their parents. And they live in New York of all places! It reminded me that that everyone has their own journey. I never liked it when activists in the 1990s outed people who were gay. It’s important for people deal with their life circumstances – whatever they are – in their own way.”

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Doug O'Neill
O’Neill, formerly Executive Editor of Canadian Living, writes on all manner of topics for a variety of Canadian publications – but has a preference for storytelling that gets to the heart of things. “Writing about journeys has always fascinated me,'” says contributor Doug O’Neill, “whether I’m scribbling about my own travels around the world or about other people’s inspiring journeys as they navigate from one life stage to another.”