Matt on mental illness and addiction, gay athletes in 2018, and the triumph of pride over shame.
It’s ten years since Matthew Mitcham wrote himself into a couple of history books. As a diver for Australia at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, he was awarded the highest ever score for a single dive and won the gold medal.
In doing so came another milestone; he became the first openly gay athlete to win Olympic gold. In this interview, he discusses mental illness and addiction, the state of play for out gay athletes, and the triumph of pride over shame.
Ten years on, Matthew Mitcham can still recall the moments leading up to his history-making dive from the 10-metre platform above the pool at the Beijing Olympics.
“I was standing in the stairwell… Zhou Luxin had just done his dive and I heard the whole crowd go, ‘Ooooh.’” China’s Zhou Luxin was Matt’s main rival for a medal.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God. If my name comes up on the board, I’ll win the Olympic silver.’ Just the night before, I’d been thinking, realistically, the bronze would be great – the best I could hope for.”
Recognising that his own rushing thoughts and the crowd’s reaction were not conducive to performing well, he blocked his ears. “I didn’t want to hear the scores. I didn’t want that to affect my dive,” he says.
“Then it was my turn. I got to the end of the platform, turned around and thought, ‘You know what – just enjoy yourself. Have fun. Relax.’ There was nothing I could do in that moment that was going to make me dive better. I’d done all the work in the lead-up training. I had to have faith that that work had been enough and that I would do the best I could in that moment.”
It was a moment informed by the challenges he’d faced as a child and as a teenager, and forged by the last 15 months of training with a new coach after returning to diving from early retirement.
“I went into what athletes called ‘flow state’,” he recalls. “The rows and rows of people on either side just faded into nothing and all I could hear was the water sprays on the surface of the pool below. Time slowed down and it was just me in that moment.”
What followed was a backward two-and-a-half somersault with two-and-a-half twists in the pike position.
After entering the water, divers perform a tight somersault to create a vacuum to lessen the splash. Then, before they surface, there’s a quiet moment when they’re alone with their thoughts.
“It felt good,” says Matt, “but I didn’t want to celebrate too soon. I was anxious about the fate of that dive so I didn’t rush up to the surface. I sat there in contemplation for a little bit because that moment represented everything I’d worked for. I really just wanted to make the Beijing team. I thought my medal-winning performance would come later in London, and that 15 months wasn’t enough time to do that well. But with every single dive I did in that 15 months, I said to myself, ‘This is for Olympic gold’.
“When I came up, the stadium had gone bananas!” Not only had he won the Olympic gold medal, he’d become the first diver to score four tens – four perfect scores. Australia had a new Golden Boy.
“I felt all the emotion rising up in me. I couldn’t string a sentence together in English let alone French – but I spoke French to a Québec TV station. It wasn’t my most articulate interview ever! I was very excited.”
While there are technical requirements divers have to achieve and are judged on, diving is not like being a team athlete playing in a game that has no script, says Matt.
“Diving is all about performance. You are being judged from the time the whistle goes to the time you finish your dive. It’s a subjective sport; the way you carry yourself around the pool makes a difference.”
Projecting confidence was part of the performance of Matt’s historic dive. “I didn’t wait a long time at the end of the platform because if you do it sends a body language cue that says, ‘I’m not ready to do this dive.’ Whereas if you walk up
confidently and go to the dive straight away, there’s no doubt you know what you’re doing.”
Apart from the technical brilliance of the dive, Matt entered the history books as the first openly gay person to win Olympic gold.
“The first openly gay man,” he stresses with some humility. “I can’t figure out if there have been any openly gay women before then – perhaps on those team sports like hockey, softball, basketball and water polo… But from my own research I haven’t been able to find anything. It’s validating to be a pioneer and it’s the legacy I’ll take with me when my Olympic record is eventually smashed, which it will be.”
Matt also attributes his success, in part, to those who came before him. At the 2004 Olympics, for example, Aussie diver Matt Helm won the silver medal in the same event – and he, too, is gay. Matt Helm didn’t have the same coming-out moment but, according to Matt Mitcham, Matt Helm was never really “in” either.
“It just hadn’t come up in the media,” says Matt, who trained alongside Matt Helm for many years at the Australian Institute Of Sport. “I think it’s important to acknowledge that I didn’t do it by myself. Matt helped me to be myself. I was only able to do it because of all the people who came before me. Not just Matt Helm, but people in the queer community like the ’78ers who fought for the rights that I enjoy today, who created the world for me to grow up in where I was able to come out and compete at an Olympic Games. It wouldn’t have been possible without them.”
Matt consciously outed himself in a preOlympics interview with Jessica Halloran for The Sydney Morning Herald. Her story covered all the usual biographical details and Matt “just blurted out that I lived with my boyfriend”. Halloran, knowing this would be a big deal, gave Matt 24 hours to consider retracting that part of the interview. He didn’t, and says it was one of the best decisions of his life.
Because Matt had started training at the AIS from age 11, he’d never come out to the people he was training with and, as he grow older and realised his sexuality, found he was unable to tell them because he felt he’d been deceiving them.
He felt trapped, and that was part of the reason he retired at 18. “I felt very isolated in that training environment. People knew something was up, that there were obstacles. I’m not very masc anyway,” he says with a hearty laugh, “but I just couldn’t tell them. And that really had an impact on my happiness.”
Quitting diving was a chance to hit the reset button. “I decided I was going to be out and open and honest with everybody I met after that because I didn’t want to have that experience of being in the closet ever again. I spent that year finding myself… finding myself in lots of seedy gay bars. [Laughs.] Just getting comfortable with myself and my identity and my sexuality.
“In that year off I was invited to train with the New South Wales Institute Of Sport by the head coach there, Chava Sobrino. He knew I was gay and said if you ever wanted to start diving again there’d be a place in his squad for me. I knew he was a good guy and that he cared for my welfare as a human being more than my welfare as an athlete. I knew I could trust him, and I had unfinished business.”
Sobrino actively created a training environment where Matt felt comfortable and accepted for who he was, and it made all the difference.
“When I was a teenager I trained on autopilot. I’d just get in and do it and get out as fast as I could. Chava really validated me and it was great for my self-esteem. I was diving because I wanted to, not because I felt I had to because it was my only ticket to being special. That’s what enabled me to be so focused and committed for such a sustained period of time. I couldn’t have done that if I hadn’t been allowed to be myself.”
Ten years later, a lot has changed in elite sports, especially with high-profile athletes like Tom Daley, Adam Rippon, Gus Kenworthy and Eric Radford (the first openly gay man to win a gold medal at the Winter Olympics).
“These guys have such massive followings, and they’re the ones who are going to make the real difference,” says Matt. “We all [LGBTIQ people] catastrophise before coming out. We all go straight to worst-case-scenario, like, we’ll get bullied mercilessly until we get bashed to death or kill ourselves.
“To have openly gay athletes who are happy and successful is really powerful, because lots of queer kids look for evidence that the worstcase scenario is going to play out, and these athletes are living arguments against that. Some well-meaning people say, ‘Hey, it’s just not a big deal any more,’ but for a lot of queer
Ian Thorpe f**king won the Olympics when he was 16… and he was being sexualised as a minor… That was despicable and unethical.
kids out there it is! They don’t have role models or any evidence that tells them that it’s okay to be gay in sports.”
Of course, the timing of an athlete’s coming-out can make a huge difference. Like Matthew was, Rippon, Kenworthy, Daley and Radford are out now at the peak of their powers. When gay athletes come out after their careers are over, arguably, it has less beneficial impact.
“Yes,” agrees Matt, but he’s adamant that no one should be judged for it. “It’s got to be their choice when they come out… That person may have had a tough time reconciling [their sexuality] with environmental factors… The last thing they need is to have people say, ‘You’re coming out is less significant than other people’s.’ And that’s what a lot of people said about Ian Thorpe. I still see a lot of people within the gay community being very cynical about Ian.”
Indeed, some questioned Thorpe’s suitability as a spokesperson on the recent marriage equality debate.
Matt leaps to Ian’s defence: “He fucking won the Olympics when he was 16,” he says. “The most disgusting thing is that he was being sexualised as a minor [by the media]. He was being asked about his sexuality when he was way too young. That was despicable and unethical. Unless you’re really comfortable [at that age and at that sporting level] you’re not going to risk exposing yourself so, of course, if you’re asked if you’re gay you’re going to say no. That kept him in the closet for such a long time because, then, you have to do the whole thing about admitting that you’d lied.
“People have compared me and Ian and the way we came out but it’s apples and oranges. He was famous before he was gay, whereas I was gay before I was famous. And that was part of my motivation [for coming out] before Beijing because, if I did well, it would save a really awkward conversation later. I wanted Australia to know exactly who they were supporting.”
And Australia did support him. The Sydney Morning Herald article came out and Matt describes the response as “validating and affirming”.
“I was a bit apprehensive, but I’d had the experience of not being authentic before and I hated it. It was the worst thing ever. Coming out was, honestly, one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life. I felt so supported by the media and the public and the gay community. That experience taught me that candour with the media is not a bad thing.”
However, his success at the Olympics – the gold, the best-ever scores, the LGBTIQ milestone – didn’t bring the sense of achievement he’d anticipated.
In fact, success seemed to accentuate his underlying insecurities.
“It all comes down to deep-seated low self-esteem, which will probably surprise your readers because, well, I’m so ridiculously handsome and funny how could I possibly suffer from low self-esteem?” he laughs.
Matt is quick to make jokes at his own expense but has the ability to make a serious point with humour.
An only child in a single-parent household with a mum who struggled with her own mental health issues, Matt felt neglected, longed for validation and learned that it only came when he did something “great”.
“I thought if I became the best in the world, mum would love me and I’d get all the validation I was craving.”
But that’s not how the win felt. “I thought people valued the gold medal, but not me; that I was just the coat rack for it, and that without the medal I still had no value and no worth,” he says.
Depressed between the ages of 14 and 18 in “the hormonal shit storm of the teenage years,” Matt’s depression returned after Beijing.
“I had the world at my feet, I shouldn’t be feeling this way, yet I did, and because of the shame I didn’t feel able to get help. I desperately wanted to change the way I felt and the only way I knew how was by shutting off with drugs.” And that meant crystal meth.
“I used it like medication,” he says. “A little bit when I first got up in the morning, a bit more at lunchtime, but I’d make sure I slept every night. I was so ashamed of what I was doing I was pretty determined to not let anybody find out.
“It wasn’t a performance-enhancing thing. I’d detox a week before every competition to make sure it was out of my system in case I got tested.
“I had this idea that you only suffer from depression once in your life, like measles,” he laughs. “I thought my life was going to be smooth sailing so, after my relapse, I learned in rehab that I’m always going to be susceptible to it and it’s a matter of ongoing maintenance for me.”
Was coming out about addiction harder than coming out as gay?
“I think so because I’d already been in recovery for over a year before I released the book [Twists And Turns, his autobiography in which he revealed his addiction] so I’d gotten away with it. Nobody had found out. I wasn’t in recovery as a knee-jerk reaction to being exposed.
“I put everything in the book, warts and all. I felt that if the potential benefit to others outweighed the potential detriment to myself then I ought to share it – all the stuff around my mental health problems and alcohol and drug abuse and crystal meth addiction. Drugs in sport are already so taboo and crystal meth… I was really worried, so I condensed all that into a half chapter and, right up until the last day before I had to submit the draft, I was umming about whether to cut it.”
But coming out before Beijing had felt good, so he chose openness and transparency. “Besides,” he adds, “what’s the point of writing an autobiography if it’s just a highlights reel like a Facebook or Instagram post?”
Talking about depression, anxiety and addiction in Twists And Turns, and in his cabaret shows, is an important part of his recovery. “It reminds me of where I was and that I need to continue to do the work,” says Matt. “I find it validating to share my story because a lot of people connect with it and appreciate it.
“You don’t know what you don’t know. I didn’t realise that a lot of my belief systems were perpetuating my negative feelings about myself. I learned that my addiction was a symptom of my depression not the cause of it, and that unless you address the underlying causes of depression you’re not doing anything towards treating it.”
To help stop himself from falling back into “the great black nothingness,” Matt has a daily exercise as part of his mental health upkeep in which he writes down three things that he’s grateful for.
“If I get to that place where I feel my life conspiring an almighty crap attack against me, if I get very dramatic and feel I should kill myself, at least there are three things I still have and feel grateful for.
“Shame is the most useless emotion ever,” he says emphatically. “Guilt is what you feel when you’ve done something wrong. Shame is what you feel when you think you are something wrong. Guilt is a response to behaviour. Shame is a response to being. And pride is the opposite of shame.”
It’s telling, says Matt, that gay athletes at the elite level still need to make the official “I’m gay and proud” statement. “When people ask, ‘Do we still need pride parades?’ Yes, we do. I need pride. I can’t afford to feel shame anymore.”
Today, Matt is studying linguistics at Sydney University and is an ambassador with Headspace, which gives him the chance to take his message to corporate events.
He’s also an entertainer, performing the stage version of Twists And Turns and the follow-up, Underneath The Covers for cabaret audiences.
“I love doing the show because I love the validation and the applause, but the most powerful part happens after the show when I meet the audience. Because I’m vulnerable and have started a conversation, people feel they can come up and be vulnerable with me. And that’s a very rewarding and powerful experience. It happens after almost every show. People share stuff with me that they’ve never been able to share with anyone before. That’s why I’ve been doing that show for four years… that, and because I love being on stage and being a show pony! I love entertaining people, but I have to be aware that I can’t let that form of validation become another addiction.
“But I don’t just do silly little songs. The show is an opportunity to educate. There’s a storyline with ups and downs and a message, there are complications and the questionable resolution,” he says with a laugh. “I’m damaged but I’m okay, and that’s the point.”
I thought people valued the gold medal, but not me; that I was just the coat rack for it and that without the medal I still had no value or worth.