Interview: Matthew Mitcham on addiction, depression and ‘openly gay’ Olympic Gold.
At the Beijing Olympics, in the summer of 2008, Matthew Mitcham became the first openly gay man in modern history to win an Olympic gold medal. Gay men and woman had medalled before, but had done so while keeping their sexuality secret, only coming-out afterwards. Openly gay athletes had won bronze and silver medals before, but not gold. Coinciding with the release of his biography, ‘Twists and Turns’, Laurence Watts meets the history making Australian diver, Matthew Mitcham.
By the time we finally get to speak, I’ve been trying to interview Matthew for more than a year. During that time his manager always managed to find a reason why it was never quite the right time for us to chat. Details from Mitcham’s just-released autobiography shine a new light on my quest to interview him: Mitcham secretly spent at least part of that time in rehab fighting an addiction to crystal methamphetamine, commonly referred to as crystal meth. Given the documented dangers of the drug I ask him what possessed him to try it.
“Because, to be perfectly frank with you,” he replies matter-of-factly, “it was the most effective thing I ever found to deal with my feelings. I’d been addicted to other drugs as a teenager, but when I gave them up to focus on my diving I did so without ever addressing the underlying issues of my drug use. I thought I was fixed because I was able to go cold turkey. And it took a while for the problems to start manifesting themselves again, but they resurfaced in the void I experienced following the Beijing Olympics.”
Mitcham’s drug addiction is just one of the headlines to come out of his tell-all book. It was one of a number of coping mechanisms the diver developed to combat a persistent problem of his: depression. How did he become the world’s firstly openly gay Olympic gold medallist? George Michael famously quipped it’s not what ‘stars’ have that makes them who they are, but what they lack. Mitcham’s story involves a deep desire to prove himself combined with a sprinkling of just the right amount of luck, at the right time.
Never knowing his father, Matthew was raised by his mother, in Brisbane, Australia, His desire to please her, coupled with a deep fear of her, led to a solitary childhood. This meant that when his family was given a second-hand trampoline, he spent inordinate amounts of time on it. This in turn led to trampoline classes at the age of eight and his eventually becoming a world trampolining champion by the age of thirteen.
Some showing off at a nearby swimming pool, where a diving scout caught him doing double somersaults off of the diving board, then led to an invitation to try diving. One year later Matthew ditched trampolining for diving because it held better prospects for taking him to the Olympics. He wanted to prove to the world that he was the best at something. This, he thought, would earn him the respect and love he believed he deserved.
Yet, it was in the criticism-rather-than-praise-focused regimen of Brisbane diving that Matthew’s unhappiness grew. Trampolining had made him happy. Now diving’s required commitment and harsh routine brought him down. He started self-harming with razor blades and, unable to cope with it, his mother threw him out of their home.
“She chucked me out in the heat of the moment,” says Matthew, “but it was more of a mutual decision, really. By then our personalities were much too big to live in the same house. We’re better now. She’s since been diagnosed with Asperger’s, which has helped us interact better with each other. Before we used to just fight. She never really felt comfortable being maternal. The best way she knew how to relate to me was as a friend.”
His mother’s friendship later extended to accompanying Matthew to Brisbane’s gay bars, which he began frequenting, illegally, around the age of 14. He remained closeted to his diving coaches and colleagues. Having moved in with his grandmother he stopped cutting himself when, after a particularly nasty hospital visit, he realised the strain he was putting her through. In reality though, he swapped one coping mechanism for another. Self-harm gave way to binge drinking, which then led to pot, LSD and ecstasy use. Since he only narrowly failed to make the team, I ask him if he blames his teenage exuberance for missing out on a place at the 2004 Athens Olympics.
“No,” he answers. “The reason I missed out was because I was sixteen competing against twenty-something year-olds, who had already competed in the 2000 Sydney Olympics and were at the top of their game. I was very much the next generation coming in underneath. I was doing well just to be competing with those guys and, to be honest, I don’t think I would have won in Beijing if I’d gone to Athens. Part of my motivation for Beijing was experiencing the Olympics for the first time.”
Beijing almost didn’t happen. Mitcham’s unhappiness with his diving setup came to a head following an underwhelming 2006 Commonwealth Games performance, and a subsequent clash with his coach. As punishment, Matthew was sent home and banned from the Junior World Championships. Mitcham was angry at the way he was treated and rebelled. Instead of returning to Brisbane, he booked himself on a flight to Sydney where he went on a drug and alcohol binge.
It was at this unlikely juncture that Matthew met his long-time partner, Lachlan, for the first time. In love, Matthew found the happiness that had eluded him for so long. Four weeks later he and Lachlan were living together in Brisbane and Matthew had quit diving for good.
Except, of course, he hadn’t. About eight months later, in January 2007, Matthew received a text message from a different diving coach, this time in Sydney, asking if he wanted back in the game. He did. He also knew that the coach in question was a lot less authoritarian than the staff he’d previously worked with. In truth, having spent time away from the sport, Mitcham realised that he missed it. If he returned to diving however, he was determined to do things differently second time around: he would only go back while being open and honest about who he was.
“Previously, I’d experienced homophobia when I wasn’t being forthright with my identity; when I wasn’t comfortable with it,” Matthew explains. “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.”
It was the start of a remarkable comeback. With intensive training, Mitcham was able to make up for lost time and was back in form in time for the Australian Nationals and Olympic trials. His performances were so good he even dreamed of winning bronze at the Beijing Olympics. Before he competed on the world’s biggest stage however, he had to deal with a raft of pre-games media requests. One of these was from the Sydney Morning Herald and it was in a profile piece for the Australian newspaper, published two months before the games, titled “Out, proud and ready to go for gold” that Mitcham publicly declared his sexuality.
“Having made a conscious decision to be true to myself when I moved to Sydney, I wanted to follow that through,” Matthew tells me. “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 it 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.”
Before flying to compete in Beijing, Mitcham took the time to read Greg Louganis’ biography, ‘Breaking The Surface’. Louganis’ story struck such a chord with Mitcham, proving as it does that a gay man can win Olympic gold in his event, that he took it with him to Beijing.
“The thing that resonated with me the most,” says Matthew, “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.”
Matthew won gold in the 10m-platform event at the 2008 Beijing Olympics in dramatic style, watched by Lachlan in the stands. When his main Chinese rival fluffed his sixth and final dive, Mitcham responded by recording the highest single-dive score in Olympic history. Four of the seven judges awarded him perfect tens for it, which was enough to move him into first place. He became the first openly gay man to win Olympic gold and the first Australian to win a diving gold since Dick Eve at the 1924 Olympics. While millions of Australians cheered his achievement down-under, millions of gay men around the world were similarly, and for the first time, vested in his success.
The fame and adulation that came with his win appeared to make Matthew happy, but behind the scenes he struggled to deal with what he viewed as life’s anti-climax. Though people stopped him daily in the streets to congratulate him he disregarded their praise and focused only on the negative. It was then that he fell into crystal meth use, which he hid from Lachlan.
By 2010 he was diving well again; setting personal bests, winning gold at the World Cup and taking the number one world ranking. Nevertheless, despite winning four silver medals at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, Mitcham believed he had underperformed. He soon discovered he was injured: he was diagnosed with stress fractures in his spine, which were then followed by a torn abdominal muscle. Unhappiness came back into his life and his drug use increased.
“The injuries came about because I overdid myself in 2010,” says Mitcham. “The normal competition season for diving is five months, but mine ended up being closer to twelve because I started with the pro tour of China and competed right up until Nationals. By the end of the year I was crippled by injuries and deeply unhappy.”
He battled his depression through recreational drug use until finally seeking help for his addiction in late 2011 and entering rehab. Having finally tempered his demons he battled back through a gruelling qualification process to make the London 2012 Olympics, but in the end his body just couldn’t take it. He made it to the semi-final stage of the 10m-platform event, but no further.
Immediately following London, Mitcham announced he would switch to the 3m-springboard event and that he was determined to take part in future Olympics in some shape or form. He made it clear that he still has unfinished business in the sport. I ask him why Olympics are so, for want of a better word, addictive.
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“Being in an Olympic village is like being in a utopian prison,” he tells me. “Everyone is happy, ripped, buzzed and beautiful. There’s no conflict or acrimony between different nationalities; most people realise it’s a unique event that they’ll only get to experience once or twice if they’re lucky. Everyone has a mindset to enjoy themselves. Then there’s the adrenaline of actually competing, the social aspect, the huge food hall and, of course, the opening and closing ceremonies, which are probably the greatest shows on earth.”
As our interview draws to a close I want to pick Matthew up on one thing he says in his book. In spite of his place in LGBT history, he claims not to be ‘an activist’. What then does he call a steadfast determination to be true to himself and to demonstrate that truth to other people?
“I guess I think of it more as pacifism, really,” he laughs. “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.”
Finally, I want to return to Greg Louganis. Given the similarities between the two of them, I ask if Matthew feels under pressure to perform as well as Greg did. I’m trying to make sure his ongoing search for medals is his own choice and not one projected onto him by others.
“I used to feel pressured by the comparison,” Matthew begins, “but I don’t any more. Greg was different because he was so far ahead of his time when he was competing; that’s why he was able to win four Olympic golds. Now, I may have only won one, but I’m aware that there are thousands of professional athletes who dedicate their entire lives to a sport and never come close to winning an Olympic medal, let alone a gold. In the past, continually comparing myself to other people made me really unhappy, no matter how illogical a comparison was. These days I’m much better about it and I’m content focusing on being the best I can be.”
‘Twists and Turns’ is available to buy in the UK and US from Monday, November 19 at the iBook store and Amazon, published by HarperCollins.