Develop the traits of a champion

By Rosemary McCracken | March 20 2011 06:04PM

Mr. Tewksbury received a standing ovation from Qualified Financial Services advisors who heard his message of optimism and perseverance at the company’s 2011 kick-off meeting in January.

The Calgary-born swimmer was just one in an impressive lineup of speakers to address QFS advisors in recent months, including Canadian top-ranking figure skater Patrick Chan and Canadian hockey legend Paul Henderson. “We’re making sure you realize that we’re not a typical MGA,” president Kevin Cott told the meeting.

In 1992, at the age of 24, Mr. Tewksbury burst out of the water at the Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona to claim the gold medal in the men’s 100-metre backstroke event. He took a silver medal as part of Canada’s relay swim team at the 1988 Summer Olympic Games in Seoul, and a bronze in the relay event in Barcelona. Now out of the pool, he’s a champion of a number of causes, including people living with acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), and he is a gay rights activist.

Raising the bar

In his presentation to QFS advisors that included doing the backstroke at the podium, Mr. Tewksbury focused on five of the 24 traits described in his latest book, The Great Traits of Champions. The first trait, he said, was the ability to continually evolve as a person and in the individual’s chosen field of endeavor. Sharing highlights from his swimming career, he told advisors of his ongoing self-evaluation prior to the 1992 Summer Games that pushed him to break his own records, earning him 21 national titles and seven world records.

Never a strong underwater swimmer, Mr. Tewkesbury was forced to address this shortcoming as the importance of below-the-water swimming in competitions increased, and he found help from synchronized swimming coach Debbie Muir. “If we don’t keep raising the bar, the outside world will raise it for us,” he told his audience. “Change is a way of life in the world today, and if we embrace change, it will be less frightening.”

He’s still giving himself new challenges. At the age of 42, he is learning French for his new post as chef de mission for the Canadian Olympic Team at the 2012 London Olympics. “I want to be able to speak French to our French-Canadian Olympians,” he said.

Effective action

Acting effectively is the second trait of champions, Mr. Tewksbury said. “Align your day-to-day activities with your goals. You only have so much time and so much energy, so find ways to maximize your time and energy.”

Effective action also means being open to opportunities. He said he grabbed the chance to work with Ms. Muir, who led the Canadian National Synchronized Swimming Team to four Olympics and seven World Championships, when she offered assistance. “She helped me figure what was working and what wasn’t, and make adjustments.

Such adjustments can also for advisors, i.e. figuring out what products work for your clients and what don’t, and then making the adjustments.

Renegade pioneers

The third trait of champions, Mr. Tewksbury said, is challenging convention. “You sometimes need to break free from the status quo. This is the Star Trek trait – going where no one has gone before.”

He gave the example of the Russian distance freestyler Vladimir Salnikov. After winning gold at the 1980 Games in Moscow, he enjoyed a long sequence of international victories, but the USSR boycotted the 1984 Summer Games. When he went to Seoul in 1988, he was considered too old at the age of 28, but became the oldest person in his swim category to win an Olympic gold medal. “At that time, 28 was considered very old,” Mr. Tewksbury said,“but Salnikov challenged the way we thought winning was possible.” In Beijing in 2008, American swimmer Dara Torres won a silver medal in the 50-metre freestyle event at the age of 40. She’s now training for the 2012 Summer Games in London.

What Mr. Tewksbury calls the “renegade pioneer” spirit is also a trait shared by cancer victims determined to win their battle with the disease, and by top financial advisors. “It takes courage to challenge convention and go your own way,” he said.

Exemplifying excellence

In competitive swimming, “I bought into the idea early that this was a meritocracy, and one with ethics and values to be upheld,” he said. “What a surprise when I got to IOC to find none of this.”

After retiring from competition after the Barcelona games, Mr. Tewksbury worked as an athlete representative with the International Olympic Commission. Travelling the world first-class on the IOC’s site-selection committee, he said his hotel room in St. Petersburg had three bathrooms and free champagne, and expensive gifts were lavished on him such as a Fabergé egg. “I knew it was wrong, but I didn’t speak out so I became a part of what was wrong.”

Disillusioned, he resigned from the IOC in 1998, and accused the organization of rampant corruption.

“If we don’t hold up mirror to ourselves,” he added, “someone else will do it for us. And, in your role as financial advisors, you too are ambassadors for the companies you represent.”


Mr. Tewksbury was master of ceremony for the Dalai Lama’s Canadian appearances in Ottawa in 2007 and in Calgary in 2009, and Tibet’s spiritual leader spoke to him about his devotion to Tibet. “If he can react with that passion after all he’s been through, so can the rest of us. Why did you get into this industry in the first place? Tap into those feeling of enthusiasm.”

He displayed his own enthusiasm in his address to the QFS team, giving a riveting, play-by-play account of his 53.98-second race in Barcelona, inching his way past American world record-holder Jeff Rouse.

But he said the moment he really won the gold came earlier that day. “Alone in my room, I tried to imagine winning, but I got scared,” he said. “Then I thought, ‘Someone has to win this race tonight. Why not me?’ It was that moment, when that thought clicked, that I won the Olympics.”

Mr. Tewksbury passed his gold, silver and bronze medals around the room for advisors to examine. And he auctioned off his Olympic Swim Team T-shirt. It was bought for $1,000 by Brian Callery of Wm. Brian Callery Agencies Inc. The money and QFS’s matching donation were presented to Gilda’s Club Toronto, the Toronto branch of an international support group for cancer victims.

Rosemary McCracken

The Insurance & Investment Journal - Volume: 15 - Number: 6 - Page: 37 - Date: March 2011