Markus Thormeyer Comes Out as Gay: “Life is much better when you fully embrace you for who you are”

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Markus Thormeyer Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

2020s Vision: The Athlete Voice

The story of Markus Thormeyer reminds us of another way in which The Athlete Voice – about so much more than ‘more money and freedom to race where I want’ – has been and remains so important when it comes to helping shape the future of sport and make it a healthier place for all, Craig Lord writes. Below Matthew De George’s story on Markus’ story you can read an archive piece from John Lohn on Mark Tewksbury and then listen to Mark in a 2019 speech that follows these words:

“… authenticity and integrity shape the culture around us – and they matter …” – Mark Tewksbury

When Canadian Markus Thormeyer was preparing in 2015 for the Rio Olympics, he felt something was missing. Though he was part of a 12-strong training group in Vancouver, he acknowledged a barrier in fully embracing not just his teammates but the devotion in the pool that would be needed to achieve a career goal.

The remedy, he decided, was to open up to his teammates about his sexuality instead of keeping the fact that he was gay from them.

Thormeyer tells the story in a personal essay for Outsports, detailing how the decision played into his training and the results it helped bring about.

Writes Thormeyer:

“After letting my walls down and coming out to the team, I felt like I could finally be me. It felt like a literal weight was lifted off my shoulders. I came to the pool with my head up and smile on my face. There were no distractions.

I could go to workout and only focus on training instead of worrying about keeping up an exhausting act that wasn’t me. Also knowing that my training group accepted me for who I am and will support me no matter what helped me feel safe and loved every day.

Feeling safe in my training environment and having no distractions allowed me to push myself to new limits in the pool. My training got better, I got stronger and my technique got sharper. Not only that, but I also broke down some walls between me and my teammates and our relationships flourished. Training with them fostered relationships that will last a lifetime.”

Markus Thormeyer, 22, made those Olympics on the seventh-place 400 free relay. The Newmarket, Ontario, native has become one of the program’s most versatile swimmers, representing Canada at the 2017 and 2019 World Championships. He was 22nd in the 200 free, 11th in the 100 back and eight in the 200 back in Gwangju, South Korea, last summer on the way to being named Canada’s Male Swimmer of the Year.

Read the rest of Thormeyer’s story here.

From The Archive

Recalling the story of a Canadian Olympic champion who used his own experience to become a pioneer among sports stars helping others to help themselves by being themselves.

It 2013, on the 25th anniversary of the Seoul 1988 Olympic Games, John Lohn wrote the following for SwimVortex to mark the launching point for Canada’s Mark Tewskbury to flourish at the next Olympiad and to become an open advocate of gay rights.

Sometimes, the big point is missed. We have a tendency to get wrapped up in medal hauls, world-record performances and the standing of an individual from a historical perspective. Caught up in that hoopla, we can overlook finer points which matter just as much. And so, we take a look at the 1988 Olympic Games – and a man’s career/life – from a different perspective.

In no way was Mark Tewksbury a headliner at the Seoul Games. Many others had more impressive performances than the Canadian. Yes, he was the catalyst to his homeland earning the silver medal in the 400 medley relay, teaming with Victor Davis to give the Canadians a sensational front half. Yes, he was the fifth-place finisher in the 100 backstroke. But more than anything, 1988 wasn’t exactly what Tewksbury wanted.

As the gold medalist in the 100 back from the 1987 Pan Pacific Championships, Tewksbury had every reason to believe he could reach the podium in Seoul. But when the 100 backstroke concluded, he watched Japan’s Daichi Suzuki, American David Berkoff and Soviet Igor Polyansky occupy the medal positions in a race that led to a ban on submarinery  that saw the protagonists disappear from view for most of the race. For the Canadian, the result, in some ways, wasn’t surprising: the enormity of the situation got to Tewksbury.

“I arrived as a young 20-year-old at the Olympics with all the clichés: Overwhelmed, totally lost, totally blew it the first time,” Tewksbury said in an interview last year with the Globe and Mail. “All the things (team officials) tell us that could happen, it did happen.”

Tewksbury, though, didn’t let the results knock him down, a scenario which would not have been stunning. Not only was Tewksbury fighting the lofty expectations placed on his shoulders, he was struggling on the inside. Tewksbury knew he was a gay man, but was not ready to come out to the world. He said hearing negative comments about gay men and women hurt. He said not being himself was a difficult way to live. He has admitted to the use of marijuana.

“I think that the journey to self-acceptance can be a really tough one,” he said in an interview with the National Post. “And I think all of us, as human beings, find ways to escape the pain and the challenges of life. It’s hard to believe for me, now, that those demons were so strong, because that dark place has really been lit up.”

Despite the inner turmoil, Tewksbury continued to flourish. He took his experience from the 1988 Olympics and turned it into two more individual medals in the 100 back at the 1989 and 1991 Pan Pacific Championships. In 1991, he also managed a silver medal in the 100 backstroke at the World Championships, placing behind American Jeff Rouse.

But at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, Tewksbury turned the tables on Rouse, who entered the meet as the world-record holder. By six hundredths of a second, Tewksbury became an Olympic champion and proved – in what was a journey that largely started in 1988 – that determination can go a long way.

Now that we have the athletic aspect of Tewksbury’s story detailed, it’s time to move to what really should be the focal point of his tale.

In recent weeks, some of the biggest headlines in sports have revolved around the coming-out of American athletes. A few weeks back, NBA free agent Jason Collins revealed he was gay. It was a declaration which landed him on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Meanwhile, this weekend saw Robbie Rogers play for the Los Angeles Galaxy in Major League Soccer.

For Tewksbury, his coming-out moment arrived in 1998, 10 years after he made his Olympic debut in Seoul and six years after the crowning achievement of his career. He has since spoken eloquently about the demons and inner struggles he faced, what went into his decision to come out and what he would have changed.

“I probably would have helped him be a little more comfortable in his skin at that time in all areas of life,” Tewksbury said of his younger self in the interview with the National Post.

“I was comfortable in my Speedo skin, so to speak, and my swimming skin. But as a human being, I felt like maybe there was something ‘wrong with me,’ because I was gay, because I hadn’t spoken about this, because the world that I was living in seemed to reinforce the message at that time. And 20 years later, I’ve never felt better and more comfortable in my skin.”

The last sentence of that quote is the most refreshing, a clear indication that Tewksbury, who has admitted to suicidal thoughts in his past, is proud of who he is. More than anything, that last part of the quote can be used to show others struggling with their identity – regardless of the circumstance – how important it is to be confident in your personae.

As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Seoul Games, it would be wise to take a moment – here and there – to remember that not every moment which unfolds in Olympic lore is about the time on the scoreboard or the medal around someone’s neck. There are many other stories which can be told.

When Mark Tewksbury made his Olympic debut in 1988, he was a man dealing with personal struggles. He wasn’t ready to come out to the public as a gay man. Ten years later, he was. And in the time since he came out, Tewksbury has certainly made an impact on others by telling his story. In itself, that helping hand deserves a gold medal.

The Athlete Voice

“… authenticity and integrity shape the culture around us – and they matter” – Mark Tewksbury, 2019

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