Profile: Matthew Mitcham

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Eden Caceda interviews Matthew Mitcham – from twists and turns to national fame.

It’s been seven years since Matthew Mitcham made sporting history and became the first openly gay man to win an Olympic gold. But when I have the opportunity to talk to Mitcham, he still speaks like the fresh-faced diver who made Australia proud in Beijing all those years ago.

By far the biggest change in Mitcham’s life over the past seven years, is that of location. Having created a cabaret show from his autobiography ‘Twists and Turns’ in 2013, with its premiere at the 2014 Fringe World Festival in Perth, Mitcham is excited to be performing it at this year’s Tasmanian Festival of Voices. It’s a dramatic move from sporting to performing – one that may be incomprehensible to many people – but Mitcham explains that it’s something he’s always been interested in doing, and a future in entertainment is his endgame.

But it hasn’t always been smooth sailing with Mitcham. ‘Twists and Turns’ explores the earlier years of his life, from his entry to diving to his struggle with depression and substance abuse. Mitcham grew up in the Brisbane suburb of Camp Hill, and never knew his father. His first love was trampolining and he was a world junior champion at thirteen. But ultimately, his drive for success was his reason for deciding to proceed with diving – Mitcham blames a need for validation as a motive for pushing himself to accomplish something.

Driven to win the Olympics, he faced strict exercise requirements and routines in the initial diving days. He began to suffer from depression at fourteen, struggling to come to terms with his emotions and constant need to act strong. He began to self-harm with razor blades and his mother, recently diagnosed with Asperger’s, threw him out of the house.

At this time, Mitcham began illegally visiting Brisbane’s gay bars. Though he remained closeted to his diving coaches, he struggled with finding the balance between being “out” and hiding his sexuality. Moving in with his grandmother, he refrained from cutting himself when he realised the damage it was doing to their relationship. But this soon led to binge drinking, marijuana, ecstasy, and LSD use.

Eventually, at eighteen, Mitcham retired from training and gave up his dream. Though he got over this period, he claims that the unresolved issues at this time affect him to this day. However, it was also at this time that he met and fell in love with his current partner, Lachlan – they have been in a relationship for eight years. With the combination of this happiness and him missing competitive sport, he moved to Sydney; where he was happier than ever, fully open about his sexuality and back into diving.

This enthusiasm ultimately allowed him to win gold in the 10m-platform event at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when his Chinese rival fluffed his sixth and final dive. Mitcham then recorded the highest single-dive score in Olympic history: of the seven judges, four awarded him perfect tens for it, and he moved into first place. It made him 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.

However, in the glow of the success of his Olympic win, Mitcham began to descend into a quiet depression once more. Brought on by the same underlying issues he faced as a teenager, Mitcham describes himself as feeling empty and directionless, leading to his addiction to crystal methamphetamine, which he hid from Lachlan. In 2010, despite winning four silver medals at the Commonwealth Games, Mitcham felt like he hadn’t succeeded. He was soon diagnosed with stress fractures in his spine and a torn abdominal muscle, brought on from excessive diving training and competitions.

In late 2011, Mitcham finally sought help for his addiction and entered rehab. He made it to the 2012 London Olympics but didn’t proceed past the 10m-platform event. Releasing his memoir the same year, Australia finally had the chance to understand and see the truth behind the golden boy – something Mitcham says he hadn’t thought about.

Moving towards entertainment, and the more ‘celebrity side’ of being a popular Australian athlete is seemingly what Mitcham always wanted. He speaks about the more recent years with joy; emceeing the Melbourne Cabaret Festival in 2013, crowd funding his own cabaret show, touring Australia with the performance, and adding to the culture of the Sydney Mardi Gras festival this year.

Being the Australian Ellen DeGeneres doesn’t seem like such a faraway dream of Mitcham’s, now that he has one talent show judging gig behind him (in 2013’s Celebrity Splash!) and upcoming appearance on the fifteenth season of Dancing with the Stars. Though he says that there is still potential for a future in competitive sport, Mitcham seems incredibly content with where his life is at now. And with national fame, his own stage show and endless prospects, who can argue against that?

Matthew Mitcham is currently performing in Tasmania’s Festival of Voices and will appear in Dancing with the Stars on Channel Seven from next week.

Originally published in Aphra Magazine, July 17, 2015.

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