Former Olympian Mark Tewksbury received a prestigious honour last week.
On Thursday, the Calgary native received the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award for Gender Equality at the Muhammad Ali Centre in Louisville, Ky. for his leadership and activism in sports.
“The host of the evening is Lonnie Ali, Muhammad Ali’s widow, and she just embodies all of those values that he had. You really feel part of the legacy with his family there. It’s extremely special,” Tewksbury said.
He said receiving the award was a tremendous honour.
“I was there as a 28-year-old. I was starting my own sport leadership career, just in awe of Muhammad Ali and all of his courage for he had done, not knowing that my path was actually going to be very similar. I would take some stances that would be very unpopular but over time that goodwill would come back,” Tewksbury said.
Michael J. Fox and Michael Lang, the creator of Woodstock, were among the other recipients of the humanitarian awards this year.
“All of us were in awe. There were six recipients under 30. They’re doing things around the world that are mind-blowing. I felt like actually giving my award back at one point because these kids do such amazing things,” Tewksbury said.
Tewksbury won a gold medal in the 100-metre backstroke at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
Despite reaching the pinnacle of his sport, the Calgary native said he faced personal challenges after the Olympics. In 1998, Tewksbury made headlines when he became one of the first openly gay Olympic gold medalists in the world.
“I found my personal power for a moment at the Olympics but then there was a whole other journey to go. I never imagined I’d share such a private thing so publicly,” he said.
“There was a moment in time when these awards were about courage at the Ali Centre. I just felt like, ‘I have to be brave enough to speak my truth, otherwise I can’t get through my life anymore.'”
He has become known for his human rights activism. He has been an advocate for inclusive and safe sport spaces and a mentor to many LGBTQ athletes.
Among his efforts is the work he has done with Special Olympics, where he served as chair until very recently.
“A little bit of a relief and I’m sure in two years it’ll be a little bit bitter-sweet,” Tewksbury said. “But I’ll never leave Special Olympics. It’s a very sticky organization once you’re there, you just can’t get out, but I’ll keep active in different ways.”
The Olympic gold medalist has also represented the Canadian government at a human rights conference in the United States and was the guest speaker at Canada’s first Pride in Montreal.
For his efforts, he was honoured as one of three pioneers featured during the Canadian Museum for Human Rights’ “2015: Year in Sport” exhibit.