Matthew Mitcham: Down But Never Under
Matthew Mitcham is impressive in many ways. First and foremost, he is known for his stunning athleticism which sets him apart from most. At the tender age of 20, that prowess landed him at the 2008 Beijing Olympic games with a gold medal draped around his neck-an Olympic champion against stunning odds at the games in which he gave himself little chance of doing so. His ten-meter platform dive shattered all expectations and garnered him a score of 112.10-the highest single-dive score in Olympic history.
A unique accomplishment for sure. And what made it special for those of us in the larger gay community: he was the first Olympian in history to achieve it as an openly gay man-having publicly come out in 2008 to the Sydney Morning Harold. Of his decision to be out, he said this in a recent Huffington Post interview, "If people were going to support me at the Olympics, I wanted them to support me for who I was. In the back of my mind, I was also thinking how awkward it would be to come out after the games if I did well. But while I was coming out to the media and the rest of the world, it wasn’t really my coming out; everybody around me already knew, so it wasn’t such a big deal." It’s a big deal for those who will come after, but he doesn’t necessarily see himself as an activist of any sort, "Yes, I’m making a point by being exactly who I am, but I’m not going out of my way to do anything. I suppose it is a form of activism, but I don’t feel like I’m actively doing anything. I’m just being me."
His propensity for winning started early in what became a coping mechanism for a troubled home life. Growing up without knowing his father, young Matthew keenly felt that lost relationship. Coupled with a complex relationship with his mother, this left him feeling isolated. In his book, "Twists and Turns," he talks about this honestly and openly, "Life must have been so hard for Mom, as it is for any single mother. Usually my mum was resilient and just got on with things, accepting that struggling on a shoestring was her lot in life, but there were times when her sadness got the better of her and she lashed out. Because many of the sources of her persecution were nameless voices at the end of telephone lines...and I was always around, she usually lashed out at me," he reflected.
When I asked about writing the autobiography, he said this, "Personally I think 24 is a ridiculous age to write an autobiography. That’s why it was so warts-and-all with so many pictures...I needed to put everything in there to fill it up!" When asked about what the message he hoped people would take from "Twists and Turns," he said, "Having faith in the ’light at the end of the tunnel’ because you don’t necessarily believe it when anyone else says, ’it gets better.’"
The book reveals that Mitcham learned to channel his pain in different ways, some positive and some negative. He found healthy release through a chance gift of a used trampoline from a family friend. Innate talent and his ability to focus surfaced during the endless hours spent on it. Focused training earned him a world championship by the age of 13. Early success continued when a chance moment of goofing off on a diving board was caught by a local scout. This ultimately led him to Wang Tong Xiang, the coach at the Australian Institute of Sport Diving and an invitation to train there.
Intense pressure (and tutelage in what Matthew now feels was an unhealthy style of coaching) brought him much success, but it also had consequences. The constant critically-focused reinforcement was difficult for Matthew to tolerate. It pushed him to act out self-destructively in order to deal with his unhappiness, manifesting in self-cutting behaviors and experimentation with drugs and alcohol. He started hanging out in gay clubs, experimenting with pot, ecstasy, speed and LSD all while maintaining a grueling training schedule. He is quoted as saying, "I feel like shit, and this makes me feel better."
He met his current partner, Lachlan Fletcher, during one of his many visits to local party spots. Meeting Lachlan gave Mitcham the love and stability he craved, eventually granting him the courage to walk away from the craziness of his hard- partying lifestyle. His difficult relationships with coaches and growing dissatisfaction also led him to the decision of walking away from diving altogether in 2006.
In January of 2007, a text from Mexican diving coach Chava Sobrino made Matthew realize he missed the sport, and it compelled him to reconsider his decision. Sobrino’s positive coaching style worked for Mitcham and with his help, he trained hard to qualify for the Olympic team, ultimately landing a spot. His condition to Sobrino for doing it was that he would only compete out and proud. In an interview with The Huffington Post, he puts his reasons for doing so in his own words, "Previously, I’d experienced homophobia when I wasn’t being forthright with my identity, when I wasn’t comfortable with it...People, kids especially, see that as a weakness and target it. When I was actually able to own it, I took all the fun away for the bullies. I’d found it hard to be comfortable with my sexuality at my original Brisbane team because I started with them at such a young age. Coming out to them would also have meant admitting to basically having lied to them as well. When I agreed to train in Sydney, though, my new coach made absolutely sure that I felt accepted and welcomed for who I was."
Mitcham took courage and advice from former Olympic diver Greg Louganis’ biography, "Breaking the Surface," about what it means to live authentically. Of the book Matthew has said, "The thing that resonated with me the most was that we have a lot of similarities in our childhood, namely depression, anxiety and drug use. I think harnessing the lessons of others is one of the things you need to do to become a successful athlete. That book really helped me a lot. As well as his insights into diving. His bigger and most important message for me was that, as a person, I wasn’t damaged."
Unfortunately, injuries hindered Mitcham from competing in London’s 2012 games, a serious setback. But all-in-all, this young man is a trooper and I can’t help but marvel at his determination. Many would have given up with the many challenges he’s faced, or lost themselves to their vices. But not this one. He is determined to continue diving. He said this about the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, "2016 is a very long way away, but it is still one of my many plans." Lucky for us, we will continue to see him in one form or another. A quote from his interview on Out.com sums it up, "In no matter what capacity-whether it’s a diver, maybe just a springboard diver, or whether it’s the media or anything, I’m definitely going to be in Rio, no matter what," he says. "I’m always going to be an Olympic champion."
I asked him about his other plans for the future, "I’m going to be Australia’s Ellen DeGeneres or Stephen Fry. I’m going to dominate Australian television first and world television ten years after that-just wait and see."