Despite the funny name, a chef de mission traditionally dishes out handshakes, not meals. For his role in London 2012, Mark Tewksbury actually cooks.
The food – curried sweet potato casseroles and vegan fajitas served to medal hopefuls at his Calgary home – is just one way the three-time Olympic medalist has tried to redefine the role of chef de mission for Team Canada.
“It’s really nebulous, ambiguous. Like, what is it?” he said of the job in a recent interview. “I think the most important part for me has been the sport piece, to be accessible and credible to the athletes, and I think that is unique.”
The Tewksbury version of a chef de mission is more cheerleader than administrator, role model than figurehead.
As “chef Mark” on Twitter, he reaches out to Canadian athletes with encouraging tweets. He has hopscotched the country meeting divers and boxers at qualifying events. When medal favourites have sent him e-mails saying, “I’m not feeling my mojo,” he’s shared strategies that gave him the edge in 1992, when he won Olympic gold in the 100-metre backstroke.
Athletes seem to be feeling the shift.
“I’m almost jealous that I’m not competing at these Games, because I want Mark to be my chef de mission,” said gymnast Kyle Shewfelt, gold medalist in the floor exercise in 2004.
“He’s upped the ante. Because a lot of time the chef de mission … goes to all the meetings. But Mark is really engaged, he’s involved, he’s a part of the team.”
Tewksbury has spent 24 years distilling his Olympic moments into life lessons. Shortly after winning a silver medal in a relay in 1988, he began speaking to Alberta schoolchildren because he had not much else to fill his time. Two years later, he fielded a six-figure speaking contract from a financial company, and shortly after the Barcelona Games, he co-founded a motivational speaking company, The Great Traits.
The mentor role seems to come naturally.
“He’s been a mentor of mine since, like, six hours after I won my second gold,” Marnie McBean, a three-time Olympic gold medalist rower, said with a laugh. She met the then-24-year-old Tewksbury shortly after he won gold.
“I was telling a story,” McBean said, “and I swore, and he was like, ‘Wow.’ He was teasing me. And he said, ‘You’re an Olympic champion and you swear?’ I started realizing, and it still took a while to sink in, that I was going to be seen as a role model and I was going to have to think about things differently.”
Chefs de mission are typically administrative types, so Tewksbury’s appointment – along with that of former Crazy Canuck ski racer Steve Podborski for the 2014 Winter Games – signals the Canadian Olympic Committee is looking for the role to evolve into something more athlete-centred. (Other teams are moving in the same direction, although not always with good results. Last year, former U.S. Olympic gymnast Peter Vidmar resigned as chef de mission for the London Olympics after his efforts against same-sex marriage drew negative attention from athletes and gay-rights activists.)
Tewksbury has clashed with International Olympic Committee officials in the past, alleging corruption, but politics is something he hopes to avoid, said Debbie Muir, a synchronized swimming coach who mentored Tewksbury before Barcelona and co-founded The Great Traits with him.
“Where it works for him is that he’s not really involved at a political level,” she said of the chef role. “He’s involved in the trenches level [with] the athletes. … He’s down at a place where he probably has very, very little influence at all over what happens at the IOC, and probably doesn’t even want to go down that path.”
In London, Tewksbury will have his own support team. His partner, Rob Mabee, an art gallery director, will be attending his first Olympics. Four years ago, the pair were set up by a mutual friend. Mabee knew of Tewksbury’s athletic career, but not that the swimmer had had a crush on him 20 years earlier.(Mabee was in a relationship at the time). Today, they both wear a silver band around their wrists as a symbol of their commitment to each other.
“I’m kind of going a million miles an hour, and he’s the rock and he’s just solid,” Tewksbury said. “I needed that balance. I didn’t know how much I needed it.”
In London, Tewksbury will be the point person for the COC should there be any calamity. Otherwise, he plans to put his digs inside the athletes’ village to good use and lend an ear to any athlete who needs to talk to someone who’s been there before.