Olympic medalist honoured with degree

After winning an Olympic gold medal for the 100 metre backstroke in 1992, Mark Tewksbury made no plans to stop traveling the globe.

The Calgary native was back in town this week to receive an honorary degree from the University of Calgary during a convocation ceremony. Tewksbury thanked the audience in a short speech, one of many given throughout his current career as a public speaker.

“I started speaking quite by mistake without any plans of it being a career, but it just happened,” said Tewksbury.

After swimming with a relay team in the 1988 Olympics, Tewksbury spent several months visiting schools to talk about his experience before returning to class at the U of C. He found children were the best audience to practice speaking to.

“You have to be really animated, keep your messaging very simple and straightforward, but not condescending,” he said.

“In fact, when I finally had to give a speech to a corporation and I had only been speaking to elementary school kids, I had to make a decision, ‘Do I do the same thing that I have been?’ I decided yes. I kept it animated and they really loved it. That’s been the basis for my style from that point forward.”

Since that first large event, Tewksbury has spoken at the Kentucky Derby, the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and to the Canadian Olympic team moments before they walked out at Vancouver’s 2010 opening ceremony. Last year, Tewksbury was the master of ceremonies for the Dalai Lama’s Calgary visit.

For Tewksbury, the most memorable events have been those where he spoke about human rights.

“Being invited by the Government of France to speak at the United Nations on human rights, and in particular the issue of sexual orientation, that was pretty amazing,” he said.

In 2006, Tewksbury published his second book, Inside Out: Straight Talk from a Gay Jock.

“In a large part, being gay and in high performance sport, I feel that I’ve pretty much said everything that I have to say about it,” he said, adding that he retired from competitive swimming almost 20 years ago.

“We need more current people to speak about the environment today. My experience might not represent what’s actually happening.”

Other 2010 U of C honorary degree recipients include EnCana’s board chairman and philanthropist David O’Brien, Blue Quills First Nations College president Leona Makokis, and Seymour Schulich, former Shell Oil Company president and namesake of the Schulich School of Engineering at the U of C. Eleven degrees were given out in total.

From the age of 14 to 24, Tewksbury swam thousands of lengths in the U of C pool.

“I literally arrived a kid with big dreams and left an Olympic champion.”

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