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4 min

Straight Talk from a Gay Jock

Mark Tewksbury's new autobiography is an exercise in hindsight

FILLING IN THE BLANKS: 'There was a huge void in my first book, and that's really anything that had to do with my personal life, my emotions and things that touched me,' says Mark Tewksbury. Credit: Xtra West Files

Mark Tewksbury’s second book, Inside Out: Straight Talk From A Gay Jock, is a heart-on-sleeve autobiographical account of the author’s experiences growing up gay in the very heterosexist, double-whammy worlds of central Alberta and competitive athletics.

Tewksbury’s claim to fame is as the last Canadian to win an Olympic gold medal in swimming. That was in the 1992 games in Barcelona. His come-from-behind victory over an American favourite in the 100-metre backstroke immediately catapulted him, whether he was ready or not, into an unblinking, and rarely forgiving, public eye.

After his gold medal victory, his face was plastered on bus stops, billboards and television screens across the country as the public face of wholesome consumer products like beef and milk. He rubbed elbows with jet-set celebrities and potentates, embarked on a public speaking career, and spent time living in Toronto, Australia and Montreal.

This tale, from the author’s own pen, is enriched in combination with Tewksbury’s struggle with, and eventual acceptance of, his sexuality and some tragic life events like the loss of his father to cancer.

While most autobiographies disappointingly supply only linear accounts of events — dry points of common knowledge that leave the reader wondering how they could better have spent their money — Tewksbury isn’t afraid to dig a little deeper, sharing his emotions with his readers. With the benefit of hindsight, he delves into the dark and recessed corners of his life not only with play-by-play accounts of events, but also with recollections of his hopes, fears and dreams.

I came to envy the fame and prestige he must have enjoyed, while pitying the lonely inner struggle to which so many queer people can relate.

“There was a huge void in my first book, and that’s really anything that had to do with my personal life, my emotions and things that touched me,” Tewksbury tells me from his home in Montreal. “It was nice to finally write about that stuff.”

Inside Out is a light read and doesn’t take much time to get through. In some parts, the reader is left wanting for more detail, but Tewksbury is, on the whole, a surprisingly good storyteller.

Although some accounts in his book are clearly glossed-over to protect the guilty, he pulls few punches and hides few details about his inner struggle.

He’s frank and honest about his initial furtive forays into gay sex and the queer world. He recounts his first relationship, how he was invited to be the third partner in the romantic and sexual lives of a gay couple in Calgary. He writes about a recurring pay-as-he-went sexual relationship with a Toronto escort at a time when he was not yet ready to jeopardize his career or public persona by publicly coming out of the closet. He even writes about his experimentation with drugs and the public media attention that revelation caused.

Tugged in many directions at once, Tewksbury took heat simultaneously from both the gay and straight communities in the late ’90s for coming out publicly, the way he eventually did come out, and for not coming out earlier. But Tewksbury says he has no regrets about the choices he made.

“On the one hand, I had the whole gay community attacking me, saying, ‘You’re pathetic. You need a career.’ On the other hand, I had the straight community saying, ‘Who cares? Why are you talking about this?’

“How do I just live my life?” Tewksbury says with a mild laugh. “I was damned if I didn’t speak about it, and damned if I did. That was the fun stuff to navigate. Finally, I’m at a place where I don’t think about it anymore.

“I feel like I did the best I could for where I was with what I had,” he continues. “Many different things would have had to have happened differently for me to be a different person in those situations. What would it have been like if I’d grown up in Vancouver, at that point in the ’70s and ’80s, instead of Calgary? My life might have been very different.”

In talking with him, he laughs easily, is unfazed by difficult or challenging questions, and expertly — even playfully — steers the conversation away from political cans of worms he knows are not for him to open. He’s a bit of a flirt, too. It’s refreshing. Perhaps the maturity of years — Tewksbury is 38 now — has earned him some peace and helped him to put his whole queer experience into perspective.

He says he leads a fulfilling life these days. He wears a “commitment ring” and he and his partner have a house together in Montreal. He still works the public speaking circuit, and is developing his first website.

He’s also passionate about gay people in sport. He’s co-president of this summer’s Outgames in Montreal.

“The thing I’m curious about is why, in today’s world, are there still no out athletes?” he asks. Tewksbury hopes the increasing prominence of gay athletic events, like his Outgames, may help to tear down the stereotypes of gay people as unathletic and to slowly pry open the eyes of mainstream sports to the reality that sexuality is irrelevant to athletic performance.

Inside Out will not likely climb very high on the bestseller list, but it may be of particular interest to queer people who have followed Tewksbury’s career over the years. It’s a valuable account of the life of one of Canada’s only out high-profile athletes, and could serve to inspire queer athletes everywhere.

“I tried to honour my experience as a gay person,” says Tewksbury, “and hopefully write it in a way that other gay people could relate to, but also in a way moms and dads, brothers and sisters, coaches and teammates, might also say, ‘I had no idea some of those experiences might be so hard, or speaking like this might mean so much.'”