Canadian chef de mission Mark Tewksbury had a moment of a lifetime when he won gold in the backstroke at the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona.
Reaching the pinnacle of his sport was a crowning moment from his stellar swimming career but it paled in comparison to serving with the national Olympic team at the 2012 Games.
“I can say it was undoubtedly the best experience of my life,” Tewksbury said of his time in London. “I thought winning an Olympic gold medal would be a major highlight but this just trumped it tenfold.”
Tewksbury’s voice was hoarse from hooting and hollering at the Olympic Heroes Parade through the city’s downtown core Friday. It was one last chance for the team members to put on their 2012 Olympic garb and celebrate their achievements in front of thousands of adoring fans on a warm, overcast afternoon.
Some of the biggest cheers were for trampoline star Rosie MacLennan, who was in constant demand for pictures and autographs.
“It’s still really surreal,” she said of her gold-medal win. “I don’t know that it’ll ever fully hit me.”
Marching bands were mixed in with the floats during the parade, which lasted about an hour before finishing outside Air Canada Centre. About 200 Olympic and Paralympic athletes were on hand for the celebration.
Members of the bronze medal-winning women’s soccer team were also a crowd favourite.
“There’s some touching moments,” said goalie Karina LeBlanc. “Going by on the float and seeing little girls crying and freaking out. It makes us cry. It’s one of those things where you’re like, ’Is this real life?’
“From block to block to block, a lineup of people just cheering, they’re in their offices, they’re banging on the windows. It’s incredible.”
Athletes were feted at the House of Commons on Wednesday and visited schools and hospitals in the Ottawa and Toronto regions this week. Several big-name athletes were in attendance Friday including cyclist Clara Hughes, kayaker Adam van Koeverden, triathlete Simon Whitfield and diver Alex Despatie.
“Today was so beautiful,” said Hughes, a six-time Olympian. “Today is my last day as a current Olympian so it’s really such a special thing to receive so many thank-you’s from Canadians here in the streets of Toronto.
“Thousands of Canadians came to say thank-you and wave their flags and to be able to say thank-you back meant the world to me.”
Canada won one gold, five silver and 12 bronze medals to finish 13th in the overall standings with 18 medals.
Tewksbury was beaming as he talked about the team’s performance in London. As chef de mission, he was the Canadian team’s representative and spokesman at the Games.
The Calgary native had a long list of duties but still made it out to several events to support the athletes.
“It challenged me in every possible level — as a leader, as a mentor, as somebody to be cheering for the team,” Tewksbury said. “It was just so special to be in this exhilarating environment and we feel it even coming back together as a team. There’s an energy that this group had.
“We broke down the silos, we united as one team and it was an honour to be a part of the leadership to help make that happen.”
Tewksbury added that since his focus was completely on the team, he had to turn down several requests — including an invitation to have lunch with the Queen in the Olympic Village.
“I just was like, ‘Sorry, that’s going to take me away from being at a sport that I need to be at so please send somebody else,“’ he said.
Instead, Tewksbury said he went to see the Canadian women’s soccer team play South Africa. He said his trip out to Coventry to watch the game was well worth it.
“Wouldn’t have traded it for the world,” he said.
The Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame’s Class of 2012 was to be officially inducted later Friday. The Hall is welcoming Olympic champions Beckie Scott (cross-country skiing), Daniel Igali (wrestling) and Jean-Luc Brassard (freestyle skiing).
The 2010 men’s hockey team and 2006 women’s hockey team will be inducted in the team category at the evening ceremony.
Synchronized swimming coach Julie Sauve will be inducted in the builders category along with freestyle ski pioneer Sarah Burke, who will be posthumously enshrined for her trailblazing work in the sport.
Former COC president Michael Chambers will receive the Canadian Olympic Order, recognizing his contributions to the Olympic movement in Canada.
Notes: Toronto-based bank Forbes & Manhattan presented a $40,000 cheque to the Canadian men’s Olympic relay team Friday. The athletes plan to use the funds in preparation for next year’s world championships and the Rio Games in 2016. Relay team members Gavin Smellie of Brampton, Ont., Oluseyi Smith of Ottawa, Jared Connaughton of New Haven, P.E.I., and Justyn Warner of Markham, Ont., initially won the bronze medal but they were disqualified moments later when Connaughton was called for stepping on the lane marker.