I did not know much about Olympian Mark Tewksbury. I was probably too focused on playing Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter at the local arcade in 1992 to pay much attention to the Summer Olympics. But I have heard a little bit about the Canadian swimmer during high school from some of my classmates who had followed the Olympics — mostly about his gold medal winning.
Twenty-four years later, I found out that he is gay. It is not that fact that made my eyebrows raised. It is the story about the social support he received — especially from his coach Debbie Muir — about his sexual orientation that boosted his confidence to achieve.
“I remember being in the ready room, surrounded by the best swimmers in the world. For my entire career, being gay had been a negative, a liability. And in that moment, I looked around the room and I thought to myself what makes me different from these guys? I’m gay!” Tewksbury said in an interview last year.
“I owned it. I was totally empowered. And I went out there, set a personal record and won the gold medal.”
With the recent hype in the news and social media about Michael Phelps and his cupping bruises and previous hype about the gaudy-colored tapes that some athletes sported in the 2012 Summer Olympics, I think we often forget that it may not be the treatment that the athletes receive that made a difference. We often forget about the athlete who has the physical and mental capabilities to achieve on their own — with or without the rituals of the treatment.
Oftentimes, we ignore other factors that may help athletes perform better. Maybe it’s the Beats that Phelps wear often that help him psyche up. Maybe it is the diet that Cammile Adams had that gave her the extra energy to win the women’s 200-meter butterfly today.
Sometimes athletes like Tewksbury may not necessarily need anything more than encouragement and acceptance from fellow peers, coaches, and family to help them compete and perform. Whether it is being accepted as who they are or overcoming past failures or fears, that social support and having a safe environment to train and compete can make a microsecond difference between winning a gold or a silver.
“But the situation in Sochi showed this discrimination wasn’t found solely in parts of the world known to be trailing on the issues of inclusion and equality; segments of the most progressive societies were failing, too,” Tewkbury wrote in The Star about the acceptance of LGBT athletes two years ago.
“Even though they were not being targeted specifically by the Russian government, LGBT athletes competing at these Olympics did not have any explicit guarantees that they would be safe.”