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Silver, gold & gay.

CANADIAN MARK TEWKSBURY HAD TWO OLYMPIC MEDALS AND SEVEN WORLD RECORDS BEFORE HE HAD THE CONFIDENCE TO COME OUT OF THE CLOSET

Mark Tewksbury knows something of the nervous energy Olympic swimmers in Sydney will feel as they take their marks, as they wait for the signal to start the race to their life's dream--a gold medal.

Tewksbury also knows something of the distracting ache closeted Olympic athletes in Sydney will feel as they hide who they are in the glaring spotlight of international attention.

"When you compete, you need to focus on your strength," says Tewksbury, the 1992 Olympic backstroke champion who created a tidal wave of excitement when he came out in 1998. "But when you're in the closet, what you focus on is fear and vulnerability."

Tewksbury was 24 on July 30, 1992, when he dove into a pool in Barcelona and swam the 100-meter backstroke in 53.98 seconds, edging out American Jeff Rouse to win an Olympic gold medal and set a world record.

Now 32, he says he first dreamed of winning the gold 24 years earlier, watching the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games on television. East Germany dominated the pool that year, winning 11 of 13 women's swimming events. Kornelia Ender, just 17, won four gold medals and one silver.

"Something about those big butch girls appealed to this little fem boy," he says. "Swimming seemed a way I could fit in. I was called a `fag,' and I don't even think I knew what it was."

The pool became a sanctuary for the 8-year-old. "When you are excellent at something, you get respect," Tewksbury says. By the time he'd turned 10, he was breaking records. At 17, he was ranked fourth in the world.

"I was good early," he says. "It came naturally to me. There really is a flow to swimming. You become one with the water. There's a real high that is so therapeutic and peaceful."

Canadians had high hopes for Tewksbury at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, but the gold he sought eluded him--he took home a silver. "I self-destructed, and it was partly because of the sexuality," he says. "I was so distracted. My hormones were going crazy. I was 20 and surrounded by some of the world's sexiest guys. In 1992 it was different."

Not so different that he felt he could come out of the closet, though. He did, however, confide in a coach in 1992, which he says relieved some of the pressure.

"I was in a good place," he says. "On race day I asked myself a question: Somebody has to win tonight--why not me?"

Six years after his gold-medal swim, Tewksbury made a splash to rival his athletic feat in Barcelona. He stepped onto a theater stage in Toronto and came out, describing himself as a screaming queen. "The response," he says, "was bigger than my winning the Olympics."

A catalyst for his coming-out was the loss of a six-figure deal with a financial institution because, with his hair bleached at the time, he was told he looked "too queer." There was another factor more difficult for Tewksbury to discuss publicly--the pain of hiding his love for actor Benjamin Kiss.

"Here's an actor who lived his whole life openly [and is now] living with a guy who's closeted," Tewksbury says. "I had to ask, Do I want to be true to this guy I love more than anything in the world? But it was a long process. The fear of losing everything for me was terrifying. The more you get, you know, the more you get caught up in that false notion of what's valuable. I had the house on the golf course and the BMW, and I spent three hours a day sitting on a kitchen floor thinking about killing myself. Finally I just had enough."

He had had enough of swimming too. Tewksbury, who is now busy building a chain of juice bars called Skweeze, hasn't returned to a pool since winning the gold. "It just doesn't get any better than that," he says of his win in 1992.

With coming out, Tewksbury says, his life has, in a way, come full circle. After the storm of publicity surrounding his announcement, the seven-time world record holder says being openly gay isn't much different from being in the pool. "It's very therapeutic," he says. "So peaceful."

Neff is managing editor at the Chicago Free Press.
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Article Details
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Author:NEFF, LISA
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 26, 2000
Words:743
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