By Jim Morris
Olympic champion Mark Tewksbury is still processing his experience of being part of the Canadian delegation that attended Queen Elizabeth II’s state funeral.
Tewksbury, a three-time Olympic medallist and a member of the Order of Canada, was among a list of dignitaries that travelled to London along with actor Sandra Oh, performing artist Gregory Charles, and Cross of Valour recipient Leslie Arthur Palmer.
The delegation also included Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, former Prime Ministers Kim Campbell, Jean Chretien, Paul Martin and Stephen Harper, several former governors general, members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and representatives of several regiments of the Canadian Armed Forces.
“Every step of it, from being on a plane with former prime ministers and governors general to holding the hand of a major movie star, squeezing each other’s hands at what we were seeing, it was surreal,” said Tewksbury. “I’m still kind of processing it. It was so intense and so quick.
“I’m rewatching The Crown right now and I’m just amazed I was at that woman’s funeral. I can’t believe it.”
Queen Elizabeth, the United Kingdom’s longest-serving monarch, died Sept. 8 at age 96 after reigning for 70 years. More than 2,000 people attended her Sept. 19 funeral at Westminster Abbey, with millions more watching on television.
The Queen had been in the stands at several of Tewksbury’s competitions. He also met her when she visited the athlete’s village at the Victoria 1994 Commonwealth Games.
“I was there to honour the Queen and her incredible life, her service and her dignified approach,” said Tewksbury. “I didn’t care as much about the institution, I wasn’t really focused on that.
“It was neat to see the history and the tradition that goes with a royal state funeral.”
The days leading up to the funeral were a whirlwind for the 54-year-old who won the 100-metre backstroke at the Barcelona 1992 Olympics.
Tewksbury had been in Manchester at a conference when the Queen died.
He had returned to Canada and on the Wednesday before the funeral, was in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., as a guest speaker for a Grape Growers of Ontario luncheon. He had turned his telephone off during his address but when he turned it back on around 2 p.m. it was flooded with messages from the Prime Minister and Governor General’s office, the Canadian Olympic Committee, Sport Canada and others.
Tewksbury had to be in Ottawa in time for a 9 a.m. flight Friday. That meant catching a late flight out of Ontario back to his home in Calgary to get clothes and other accessories. He then got the last plane out of Calgary Thursday night and arrived in Ottawa at around 2:30 a.m. Friday, catching about three hours sleep before boarding the flight to London.
“I remember waking up Sunday and I felt really out of sorts,” he said. “I was just so utterly jetlagged and confused about where I was in the world.”
Like many members of the Canadian delegation, Tewksbury was surprised by his invitation.
“We were going about our regular lives, and all of a sudden we were literally pulled out and thrown into this intense experience for about 82 hours then sent back to our regular life,” he said. “It was super intense.
“One of the things we were talking about was, where were you when you got the call? You have to drop everything.”
Upon arriving in London the group stayed at a hotel within walking distance to Westminster Abbey.
“That was really important because all the roads started to get closed,” he said. “Every hour closer to the funeral, you can imagine the more security that started to happen.
“I hate to compare it to an Olympics but (being) on the world stage, the security and the enormity and the world press, it had all of those elements to it.”
On the day of the funeral, members of the delegation walked the entire Westminster Abbey. Tewksbury was part of a group seated near the front of the west entrance to the Abbey, allowing them to see everybody arriving.
“I had front row seats,” he said. “No one was in front of me.”
Sitting near Tewksbury was Dame Kiri Jeanette Claire Te Kanawa, the retired New Zealand opera singer.
“I had to tell her what a big fan I was,” he said.
Tewksbury also met Willie Apiata, a member of the New Zealand Special Air Service, who became the first recipient of the Victoria Cross for New Zealand. He received the award for bravery under fire during the War in Afghanistan in 2004, in which he carried a gravely wounded comrade across a battlefield, under fire, to safety.
During receptions prior to the funeral Tewksbury had a chance to meet and talk with Indigenous, Métis and Inuit leaders.
“We spent a lot of time together as a delegation,” he said.
“It was, I don’t want to say fun, it was celebratory. Everyone felt really proud to be there. We knew what an honour it was, something we could share with each other.”