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How an Olympic champion invests his money

Former Olympic swimmer Mark Tewksbury in Calgary in July. Mr. Tewksbury says that about 75 per cent of his investments are in real estate. Fixing up old properties is ‘really exciting,’ he says.

Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail

Most Canadians know Mark Tewksbury as a champion – not just for his Olympic medals in the pool, but also his humanitarianism and advocacy for gay rights. But there's an entrepreneurial side to him too, which has seen its share of success and struggles. Mr. Tewksbury's first shot at running his own small business was a flop, but he's had a lot more luck investing in the real estate market. Today, the 47-year-old is co-founder of a professional development company called Great Traits, where he earns a good living coaching everyone from athletes to executives about achievement and leadership. Mr. Tewksbury recently spoke to The Globe and Mail about his life post-Olympics, and where he puts his money:

When did you start investing?

I had money early in life as an athlete, in my early 20s. I was fortunate enough to get some sponsors and it wasn't just my swimming, but my speaking that helped me to get that. One of my sponsors was a financial institution, so I learned early to put my money into RRSPs and other investments. I was pretty hands off with my money. It grew because I kept earning, but it didn't perform the way a lot of people led me to believe it might.

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What other investments have you been involved in?

I am an entrepreneur and I did what most entrepreneurs have done at some point in their career, which is that I had a spectacular failure. It was in my early 30s. I had a juice bar on King Street West in Toronto. It was in what is now the hottest neighbourhood, but it was too early when I did it in 2000. The tenants in the area just didn't come. It closed after about a year and a half. I lost most of my savings and what I had built up to that point. It was a really tough thing to have happened.

What did you learn from that experience?

I learned to save really well. I had a holding company and I learned to make enough money to pay myself a salary and then put the rest toward debt reduction. It was my PhD in business. The money that you save is very precious and not quick to be replaced. When I speak to athletes, I share this story. I share all of the ups and downs. I tell them to be careful and to know that when something doesn't work out, you can recover.

What are some of the successful investments you've had?

I got into the real estate market in Montreal around 2002, which was very affordable at the time. I bought and sold properties for a number of years. I recently got out of the Montreal real estate market and bought a big Victorian property in Toronto that I am going to turn into a multiunit dwelling and rent it out. About 75 per cent of my investments are in real estate.

With your equities, do you manage the investments yourself?

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I have someone else manage the money. The majority is in RRSPs and TFSAs. I tried to get into it, but I don't really have a passion for it. What I love about real estate is taking old properties and upgrading them, which can in turn inspire the community to do the same. To me, that's really exciting.

Are there certain types of stocks that you prefer over others?

I'm a fairly conservative guy. I really like Canadian banks and other stocks that pay dividends, and I own a bit of oil and gas because I live in [Calgary] Alberta.

Any other investments that you've made?

I invest in Special Olympics athletes through a life-insurance product. I did a monthly withdraw for 18 years [through the Special Olympics Canada Foundation].

When I die, the Special Olympics organization will be the beneficiary of that policy that I took out.

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How you describe yourself as an investor?

I don't have kids so I am not as worried as some people might be about building a huge treasure chest. I'm more interested in taking care of my needs and my partner's needs and doing interesting things, such as restoring homes. If I had more money I would invest in more people and organizations like Special Olympics.

This article has been edited and condensed.

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