MATTHEW MITCHAM

DNA Magazine - - CONTENT - Fea­ture by An­drew Creagh. Pho­tog­ra­phy by Lucas Mur­naghan.

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.

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