SPORTS WATCH

The man with the golden touch

TRENT FRAYNE December 7 1992
SPORTS WATCH

The man with the golden touch

TRENT FRAYNE December 7 1992

The man with the golden touch

SPORTS WATCH

TRENT FRAYNE

Wherever he goes Mark Tewksbury takes his gold medal. He keeps it in a black suede pouch inside a small carry-on bag. He wants it handy to show to the hundreds of people who ask about it They like hefting it and they finger the lettering. A while back, Mark caught Magic Johnson on the David Letterman television show and was startled when the amiable American basketballer gingerly drew his shining gold medal from its pouch. “It was just flawless,” Mark chuckled later. “He must never show it.” For his part, Mark carries around his medal so he can show it. For him, this medal is more than a medal; it’s a metaphor.

Mark won it late last July in the swimming pool at Barcelona, where he was the first Canadian athlete to earn gold at the 1992 Summer Olympics. There is a widely circulated picture of him at the finish, arms flung high, big white teeth splitting his features. He had shaded U.S. world-record holder Jeff Rouse in the 100-m backstroke.

Wet or dry, Mark is a very enthusiastic guy, an enthusiasm he takes, along with his gold medal, on a speaking tour stretching from one coast to the other. He talks inspirational stuff, about setting goals and going for them, motivational talks designed mainly for high-school kids but applicable to normal humans, as well. When he finishes, Mark unsheaths the medal on its multicolored ribbon—red, black, yellow, green and blue, the colors of the five Olympic rings—and lets the audiences toy with it. He says eveiybody reacts to it, that their faces reflect both curiosity and delight when they touch it. He uses himself as an illustration that goals can be achieved by hard work and dedication. “Whatever you undertake, give it your best shot” says Mark. He is Norman Vincent Peale in swim trunks.

Since the Olympics, Mark has delivered his message in 20 high schools in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Olds, Alta., Winnipeg, Toronto, Barrie, Ont., Ottawa and Halifax. His agent at the International Management Group,

‘Whatever you undertake, give it your best shot,’says Mark Tewksbury, a Norman Vincent Peale in swim trunks

Blake Corosky, estimates that by the end of 1993 when a number of Mark’s contracts expire, he will have spoken to 25,000 kids in 50 schools. One sponsor, since 1990, is the Investors Group, and Speedo swim wear was his equipment sponsor. Last winter, his healthy kisser—he resembles a young James Garner—was plastered all over Toronto bus shelters in poster ads for jeans on a contract that has expired. Corosky reports that Mark has a motivational book in the works and has established the Mark Tewksbury Junior Swim Bursary to aid promising young swimmers.

To the surprise of some people who had the notion that modem high-school kids are a cynical and undisciplined bunch, Mark has found them to be highly receptive to his idealism. “The big majority want to be motivated,” he says.’They want to have goals and if some of them are inspired by seeing the gold medal, that’s what I’m after.”

The medal has served as a symbol to Mark since two major disappointments at the 1988 Games in South Korea. First, there was his failure to do better than fifth place in his backstroke specialty, a setback that almost caused him to give up swimming. Next came the mess Ben Johnson made of his career as a sprinter,

a tarnishing of Olympic ideals that depressed Mark. Those ideals had mattered to him for the dozen years since 1976 when he’d sat home in Calgary, an awestmck eight-year-old watching the Montreal Olympics on television. Canada didn’t do all that well at the Montreal Games. Even so, the bronze and silver medals earned by Shannon Smith, Nancy Garapick, Cheryl Gibson and Becky Smith, and the effort and determination of Graham Smith, then Canada’s best male swimmer, fired young Mark’s imagination.

Earlier than that, back when he was four years old, Mark’s father Roger was transferred by his oil-company employers from Calgary to Dallas. The weather is always stifling and humid in summer in Texas, so his mother Donna regularly sent little Mark off to a swimming pool to cool down. He has been leaping in and out of pools ever since, the past decade under the skilled direction of coach Deryk Snelling in Calgary.

When Mark talks of Deryk he breaks into his toothy grin and pats the medal. “He wanted this more than I did,” he says. “He’ll soon be 60 and this is his first Olympic gold. He used to be a drill sergeant in the British marines. ‘Never give up’ is Detyk’s motto.”

But Mark almost gave up four years ago in Seoul, shattered by his fifth-place finish following a flood of successes in the Commonwealth Games and both the world and PanPacific championships. What torpedoed him was a new backstroke technique by which swimmers were shooting along underwater for as much as 45 m, practically the length of an Olympic pool, a technique much faster than knifing across the surface. They would pop to the surface for a gulp of air and a quick turn and disappear again.

Following the Seoul Games, the submarine style was outlawed by FINA the sport’s international governing group. Now, swimmers must surface after no more than 15 m and the pretenders have sunk.

Of course, Mark didn’t know about that coming rule change, and he was ready to hang up his Speedos in the wake of Seoul. What kept them on was Ben Johnson’s plight and Mark’s own conviction that Pierre de Coubertin had the right idea when he revived the ancient pastime of fun and games in 1896. “The important thing is not to win but to take part,” was one of the Frenchman’s notions. Another was, ‘The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”

So Mark began preaching that stuff in his speeches, especially in schools. People across Canada had been shocked by the Johnson revelations, and Mark believed they needed to hear that the Olympics were great. “The more I talked, the more I realized the Olympics were great. I convinced myself.”

So he went back to the terrifying business of rolling out of bed at five o’clock in the morning to fall into a pool of water. “Some mornings in Calgary it would be below zero, and getting into the water, getting wet, was torture.”

But suddenly, by a tiny fraction of a second in Spain, the misery was worth it. You don’t believe this? Have you touched the gold?