Canada's first openly gay Olympian says having the 'space to be me' helped him win gold

Olympic Gold Medalist in Barcelona, Mark Tewksbury tosses Olympic Team wristbands into the crowd in the Toronto Gay Pride Parade
Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Swimmer Mark Tewksbury won Canada's first gold medal for the 100-meter backstroke at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, roaring back from his slump in the world rankings.

Four years earlier, Tewksbury entered the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea while ranked second in the world, winning a silver medal as part of the 100-meter relay team. However, the late 80s emergence of underwater swimming techniques such as the "dolphin kick", saw Tewksbury, a strong surface swimmer, slip down the rankings following the games.

This was when he decided to work with synchronized swimming coach, Debbie Muir. At the time, working with a female coach was something unheard of in the "male-dominated" world of swimming, Tewksbury told CNBC.

The swimmer said training with Muir forced him to be "open-minded" and to "innovate", helping him to shave time off his record, climb back up the world rankings and win the gold medal.

Tewksbury said another important part of the process with Muir was getting the time and room to be himself as he fought back to the top of his sport.

"Part of that process was the technical, but it was also having somebody that created the space for me, as a closeted gay person back in the eighties and nineties - a totally different world and also in the world of sport, which still isn't very progressive on most issues - this space to be me," Tewksbury explained.

This "empowering" experience led Tewksbury, who came out in 1998 and was Canada's first Olympian to do so, to start his own journey to help others find that same safe space for themselves.

Tewksbury said he was thankful to see Canadian pair skater Eric Radford become the first openly gay man to win Olympic gold at the winter 2018 games in PyeongChang, South Korea.

"I was like, no wonder I didn't do it in 1992…but I've worked really hard to create those spaces and actually, I'm grateful to have been one of the mentors that was there for Eric to have his journey in Canada," he said.

Since coming out, Tewksbury has addressed the United Nations on LGBTQ issues and been inducted into Canada's Q and LGBT Human Rights hall of fame, as well as receiving other accolades for his activism.

'There are no shortcuts'

In terms of career advice, Tewksbury reiterated that it was important to keep an "open mind."

"You might think you're starting on a path (but) some amazing opportunity might come your way and you will stumble onto something that you never knew that you actually wanted to do," he said.

He believed getting an education was also key, arguing that his political science degree enabled him to use critical thinking in other parts of his life.

Accepting "there are no shortcuts" was another piece of advice Tewksbury offered, saying "a lot of people looked for a quick fix" to finding success but that like the old adage "anything worth getting…(was) going to take some time."