After soaring at the Beijing Olympics, diver Matthew Mitcham crashed out in London. Benjamin Law investigates what went wrong.
Back on board … plagued by injury from the 10-metre platform, Matthew Mitcham has shifted his focus to three-metre springboard diving. Photo: Ellis Parrinder
It’s supposed to be spring in Sydney, but it’s miserable out there today: 9°C and bleak with rain. Outside Sydney Olympic Park Aquatic Centre, where Matthew Mitcham trains, umbrella-inverting winds are so violent they feel capable of lacerating faces. Sydneysiders could be forgiven for ditching their morning exercise regimens and crawling back into bed, but Mitcham never has that option. Every weekday, the Olympic gold medal-winning diver is up at 5am and ready for gym training by six. After a midday break, he will hit the pool – very literally – over and over again for roughly another three hours.
When I meet Mitcham at the NSW Institute of Sport, he sports a mild fuzz of a beard and super-short shorts: Narnia’s Mr Tumnus as Tommy Hilfiger model. I suggest people might be surprised to know he is training again so soon after the London Olympics.
“I was actually planning on retiring after London,” says the 24-year-old, “but because of how things went …”
Mitcham never made it to the Olympic 10-metre platform final. His last dive in the semi-final – a back two-and-a-half somersault with a two-and-a-half twist, the same manoeuvre that won him gold in Beijing – was his undoing in London. As the anaemic score of 70.20 came up and eliminated him from competition, Mitcham couldn’t help it. For a moment, he wept right there in front of the cameras.
Sports commentators were generous, noting that Mitcham had been plagued by injuries coming into the London Games. They’re common in this sport, especially from the 10-metre platform, where competitors hurl themselves from three-storey heights and collide with the water at the speed of a car shifting into fourth gear. Done repeatedly, it almost guarantees the gradual demolition of their bodies, especially their wrists, which absorb all the impact. Ganglions – cartilage lumps that often form after injury or shock – riddle that area. Most platform divers wear strapping tape or wrist guards constantly, as if their bodies are always on the brink of crumbling, only held together by adhesives.
Mitcham’s injuries were far more serious: spinal stress fractures and an abdominal tear that rendered him immobile. “With the injury I had, you have to have complete rest, which could take anywhere from a month and a half to nine months,” he says. There had been other incidents, too. Back in February, Mitcham, competing in the German city of Rostock, had badly misjudged a 10-metre dive in training and smashed into the pool on his back with a sickening slap. He came up coughing blood. “It’s the most awful feeling when you know something’s gone wrong,” he says. “The free fall is the worst, because you’re expecting it, but don’t know how bad it’s going to be.”
There was also another far more serious problem plaguing Mitcham. Publicly, he was contending with physical injuries and a string of poor performances. Privately, he was experiencing the psychological nightmare of clinical depression, compounded by serious drug abuse. His body crippled by injuries and his self-esteem destroyed by poor dives, Mitcham had turned to the comfort of methamphetamine – the savagely addictive substance also known as crystal meth.
“It came into my life because of all the injuries,” he says. “Uppers make you feel up, and I was feeling really, really down.”
On weekdays, Mitcham would smoke the odourless drug in a pipe the way many consume coffee: in the mornings before training, then again at lunchtime – usually in his car, out of sight from everyone, including his coach, manager and boyfriend.
“Nobody suspected anything,” Mitcham says. “I’d done such a good job of hiding it and maintaining my functionality, but it scared the shit out of me that I didn’t have control. I’d always said to myself, ‘I’ll stop as soon as I want to.’ And as soon as I wanted to, it wasn’t that easy. That was terrifying. And it was getting closer and closer to the Olympics …”
To most people, this will all sound as shocking as it seems unlikely. Mitcham’s entire persona is endearingly wholesome. He’s that adorable goof who plays ukelele covers of Beyoncé on YouTube (“Oh my God. I think I’m ovulating, and I’m a guy,” went one YouTube comment). He’s the cutie-patootie flirt who promised Twitter followers he’d dive off the 10-metre platform naked if he won gold in London. He’s the lovable dork who dressed as a unicorn to go to a Lady Gaga concert.
The epigraph of Mitcham’s new memoir is – no joke – a quote from the Toy Story character Woody. But given what Mitcham’s been through, it’s strangely appropriate: “That wasn’t flying! That was … falling with style.”
Matthew Mitcham’s parents were barely adults when their son was born: Vivienne Mitcham was 18, Greg Swadling was 21. An old photo of Swadling shows a beachy, sun-kissed man with tousled dark blond hair and a demon grin. Cover his eyes in the photograph and Swadling is a dead-spit for Mitcham now. He was too young to be ready for fatherhood.
“Never having had a dad, I didn’t miss him,” Mitcham writes in his book. “I felt no sense of loss or abandonment. Mum and her father were enough.” It would be another two decades before Mitcham would meet Swadling – and he found him “one of the most lovely, most grounded people I had ever met”.
To begin with, Vivienne Mitcham and her son lived in an old family home in Brisbane’s Carina, before moving into a small flat in Camp Hill. They struggled financially but Matthew never thought of his family as poor, despite their electricity being cut off for half a year when he was six. He counts that period as being among his fondest childhood memories. They dined by candlelight and had baths heated by the gas stove. When their dog refused to eat the cheapest pet food available – a gruesome processed sausage – Vivienne and Matthew made him fetch chopped-off chunks, turning mealtimes into a game. “Making the most of a shit situation” is how Mitcham happily describes that period now.
At nine, Mitcham suspected he was gay. When he was six, he’d had a sexual encounter with a 12-year-old boy in a shed and remembered feeling jealous when he later saw the same boy in the shed with another kid. For a few years, he tried to condition himself out of being gay by snapping his wrist with a rubber band whenever he thought of boys. It didn’t work. At 15, he came out to his mother when she discovered gay porn on his computer. Her response: “Derrr.”
“I always had an inkling,” says Vivienne. “Because I was always expecting it, I was fine with it. But he struggled with that. Teenage years are hard enough, but with that on top?”
Diving came into his life by accident. Mitcham had been competing on trampoline since the age of eight. When he was 11, an AIS diving instructor spotted him showing off by performing acrobatic feats on the diving board at the Brisbane Aquatic Centre, in suburban Chandler. Impressed, the instructor demanded to know where he’d learnt to dive like that. For a while, Mitcham competed in both diving and trampoline until the 30-hours-a-week demands of doing both became too much. Trampoline wasn’t an Olympic sport at that stage, so Mitcham went with diving. By the age of 14, he was winning national titles across one-metre, three-metre and 10-metre events.
Despite the wins, Mitcham wasn’t a happy teenager. Diagnosed with clinical depression at 14, he began sneaking out of home at odd hours, armed with a fake ID and an athlete’s body that made him look older than he was. He became a regular face on Brisbane’s gay club circuit and would dance until dawn, meeting boys, sometimes going home with them. He smoked pot regularly and sampled LSD, only to wake up the next day with little or no memory of the night before.
Mitcham’s Sunday-night routine: stay out clubbing until 5am Monday, then head straight to the pool for 6am training. By Tuesday and Wednesday, he would be wrecked, sleeping right through school subjects he didn’t like.
Photos of Mitcham taken during this time show someone trying to undermine his natural golden-boy image with dyed black hair and a pierced tongue. (He’s ditched the hair dye, but kept the piercing.) His growing hatred of diving fed into his depression, for which he was prescribed antidepressants. He didn’t anticipate their effect, which was to cause his entire spectrum of emotions to flatline.
“They just completely zombied me out,” he says. “Eventually, I just got so sick of not feeling anything that I took myself off them.”
But without his meds, Mitcham’s depression swan-dived, manifesting itself in intense self-harming episodes. He rolls up his cardigan sleeves for me and displays the fleshy under-part of his left forearm, his smooth skin marred by a fine ladder of equidistant cuts. “And that was one just episode,” Mitcham says quietly.
When I turn to his right forearm, I wince. Unlike the left forearm, the cuts on Mitcham’s right arm don’t follow any logical pattern. It’s as if a small wild animal has clawed at him repeatedly. Nestled in the wild lantana growth of scar tissue is a particularly awful wound that’s eight centimetres long – a deep, purposeful stab that required eight stitches in hospital.
On the one hand, Mitcham suspects that his cutting was a cry for help, or a subliminal plea for attention. But he says that after self-harming, “there was the most overwhelming sense of shame, so I covered it up and hid it at all costs”. His favourite garment was a rugby jersey with three-quarter-length sleeves, mainly because it covered up most of his scars.
One of the biggest problems he faced was his mother’s emotional detachment, which he now understands was because of her Asperger’s. “The way children learn to regulate their feelings and emotions is by interaction with their parents,” he reasons. “My only parent doesn’t do emotions very well, so I never learnt that emotional regulation.”
After one particularly intense self-harm episode that followed an argument, Vivienne Mitcham kicked Matthew out of home. He was 15. “I felt very out of my depth,” Vivienne says. Matthew moved in with his grandmother Marion, which seemed to help everyone. As Marion doled out the discipline, Vivienne and Matt reconnected as friends. “Some people might not agree with this type of parenting,” Vivienne says, “but the best way for me to help him was to go out partying with him. It was my way of keeping my eye on him.”
Meanwhile, his relationship with then-coach Hui Tong – now Diving Australia’s national head coach – was deteriorating. Tong’s coaching style predominantly focuses on correcting athletes’ flaws, while Mitcham thrives on – and needs – praise. When criticised by Tong, he responded with the limited emotional palette of most teenagers: seething silence or passive aggression.
By 2006, Mitcham – exhausted, angry and walking wounded – hated the sport and loathed his coaches. He came to such verbal blows with Tong at the 2006 FINA Diving World Cup in China that Tong banned Mitcham from attending the World Junior Diving Championships in Malaysia that year. Furious, and close to leaving diving altogether, Mitcham impulsively booked flights to Sydney for an escape, despite barely knowing anyone there.
Clubbing one night in Darlinghurst, he met Lachlan Fletcher, a shy, tall and ruggedly handsome man 10 years his senior. Mitcham ended up staying at Fletcher’s for the week. He showed Fletcher his wounds – the ones in his head, the ones on his limbs – and Fletcher confided in Mitcham his own grief over having lost his long-term boyfriend to cancer.
With Fletcher’s support, Mitcham quit diving at the age of 18. By that stage, he had quit school, too. For six months, free from diving and classrooms, he did nothing but party.
As Mitcham tells me all this, his phone rings. Apologising, he takes a call from his current coach, Salvador “Chava” Sobrino, who is Mexican. Mitcham cheerily greets him in Spanish.
“Hola, Cabrón!” he says “Dónde estás? Estás en la oficina?” (“Hey, motherf…er! Where are you? You in the office?”) Sobrino was the one who wooed Mitcham back into the sport in 2007, reaching out with a simple SMS. “Matthew,” he wrote, “if you ever want to start diving again, I’ll have a place for you in my squad.”
“He was kind of misunderstood,” says Sobrino, a former Olympic diver himself. “He was a very different type of person, artistic in many ways. He was gay and flamboyant – very out-there – but that’s why I liked him. When you are an artist, your personality doesn’t fit the norm. I could see there was a perfectionism, an artist, and a freakish diver, even when he was young.”
When Sobrino lobbied Diving Australia to allow Mitcham back into training, they told him Matthew Mitcham spelled trouble. “I was trouble,” says Mitcham. “There were all these episodes of cutting, and even times where I would scratch myself and leave big patches of bare skin on my body.” Still, Sobrino got what he wanted and Mitcham was readmitted.
By 2008, when Mitcham was 20, he wasn’t just Olympic-ready, but in Sobrino’s mind, capable of winning gold.
The question of whether to go public with his sexuality came up. “My approach was, ‘Look, it’s your decision, but I would say don’t do it yet,’ ” Sobrino says. “My concern was it would cut the possibility of sponsorship.” But Mitcham said he just wanted to get it out of the way and Sobrino respected that.
When Mitcham arrived in Beijing, he says: “For the first time in a really long time, I was diving because I was happy.”
At the Beijing Olympic final, Mitcham’s finishing dive scored four perfect 10s and a total of 112.10 – the highest-scoring dive in Olympic history. Mitcham became the first male Australian diver to win an Olympic gold in 84 years and the first Olympic gold medallist to compete as a publicly gay man. It was the biggest high of his life. But just as in the world of diving, the realm of mental health also dictates that what goes up must come down.
After the international love-in that followed his Olympic gold, Mitcham hit a wall with a bad case of post-Olympic comedown. He had been off antidepressants since 2007 and struggled with the psychological slump most Olympic athletes face several months after the Games finish. By late 2008, facing new athletic pressures and professional commitments, Mitcham began using crystal meth – a drug he’d previously dabbled with – to regulate his moods.
Performance-wise, though, Mitcham’s momentum remained strong. In early 2009, he scored new personal bests at local meets. International competitions in Doha, Changzhou and Rome were less successful and shook his confidence, but he clawed back in 2010 to win silver and gold at international meets in Mexico and Canada.
Things changed later that year. At the Delhi Commonwealth Games in October, Tom Daley – the newly crowned British diving wunderkind – demolished Mitcham, scoring perfect 10s to finish 29.2 points ahead and claim gold. Daley had already beaten Mitcham in Rome the year before and the media swarmed to him. If journalists paid any attention to Mitcham at all, it was usually to focus on the growing rivalry between the Aussie and the Brit. Adding injury to insult, Mitcham was now also carrying two undiagnosed stress fractures, resulting in back pain so constant and severe it deprived him of sleep.
Further scans revealed a 10-centimetre tear in his abdominal muscle. “That injury …” Sobrino says, shaking his head. “Oh, it was a terrible injury. It’s the centre of your body. He couldn’t cough. He couldn’t laugh. It’s a long, long period to recover.”
It was impossible for Mitcham to train at full capacity. His disadvantage at competitions was devastating. “When he arrived at the [London] Olympics, he had to drop two dives off his list and went back to basic dives. He couldn’t get his legs straight into his chest,” says Sobrino, laying out his palms. “I know I have the best diver in the world. But when he’s broken? It’s very difficult.”
Even now, Mitcham struggles to explain why he started using methamphetamines. “It was just like: ‘I feel like shit, and this makes me feel better,’ ” he says. He pauses to think. “Actually, you know what? It was probably because I’d associated so many happy memories with partying and drugs. And because I felt so shit, that was the last thing I could think back to that actually made me happy – apart from the Olympic experience, but I couldn’t replicate that for another four years.”
Meth seemed to offer Mitcham everything antidepressants failed to provide. “It gives you a lot of energy and it makes you feel happy,” he explains. “It also focuses your attention.”
While supporting teammates at the 2011 World Championships in Shanghai, Mitcham behaved weirdly, and Sobrino now understands why: it’s hard to get a hit in a foreign country, and Mitcham was experiencing withdrawals. “His personality was completely different,” Sobrino says. “He was very jumpy, very grumpy, so I’d stay away from him. I thought it was me, but it was this series of problems he was having.” Later, when Mitcham told Sobrino what was going on, the diver completely broke down. “Oh, he was a mess,” Sobrino says. “Like a seven-year-old kid, crying.”
Vivienne Mitcham wasn’t necessarily surprised that he was using drugs, but was taken aback at the depth of his problem. “Obviously, as a mother, and knowing his upbringing, I had to ask myself whether I contributed to it,” she says.
He also confessed to Robyn Watson, his manager, who has represented elite athletes for years. “There are no surprises in our industry,” she says. “But what I was surprised at is that he still managed to maintain a professional front. Matthew’s never let me down. He’s never been late for an appearance; he’s never missed an appearance. But I could see he was depressed about his injury. I could tell he wasn’t centred and balanced.”
Mitcham had already come clean to boyfriend Fletcher, who was privately administering random drug tests to help Mitcham stay clean, but the admission to Watson changed things. She initially observed him to see whether he could stop using meth on his own. Then, she says, “it became apparent that he hadn’t broken the addiction”. Watson consulted a professional counsellor, who confirmed that Mitcham needed to be admitted into rehab. “Robyn gave me an ultimatum,” Mitcham says, “that if I wanted to keep diving and keep working with her, that this is what I had to do.”
Vivienne Mitcham also had a frank conversation with her son: “If you go to rehab, I’ll stop drinking,” she said. Both knew she had struggled with alcohol for years. (Like her son, Vivienne has suffered from depression and in 2006 she attempted to take her own life.) True to her word, she hasn’t touched alcohol for 14 months.
In late September and October 2011, Mitcham was admitted to South Pacific Private, on Sydney’s northern beaches, where he shared a room with five other people. “I was scared for my anonymity,” he says. By the third week, the inevitable happened: a fellow patient asked him whether he was “that person”. Mitcham said he was, but added he didn’t want anyone to know.
Chantelle Newbery – who won gold in the 10-metre platform at the 2004 Athens Olympics – also spent time in the same clinic. For years after the Olympics, Newbery suffered from intense depression that led to two suicide attempts. “There are Olympic medallists out there suffering silently,” she says. “After I came out with my story, a lot of people contacted me – other elite athletes. Some had retired abruptly, some had won medals, some hadn’t won any. It triggers depression from a lot of avenues.”
Both Newbery and Mitcham agree the demands of being an elite athlete are not exactly conducive to good mental health. An athlete’s entire sense of self-worth relies on physical success. At competitions, you win or you don’t. Which means that most of the time, there are only two options for your mental state: massive highs or crushing lows.
Inside the Sydney Olympic Park Aquatic Centre, we’re embraced by the warm, foggy, chemical atmosphere universal to all indoor pools. As we walk under the diving platforms, the 10-metre cement limb juts out and looms over us. From this angle, it looks nauseatingly high. Mitcham takes a brief glance up and confirms he’s not going near it any time soon. After London, Mitcham quit the 10-metre event altogether and is now solely focused on the three-metre springboard. It’s easier on the body, he explains. Plus, the shake-up keeps him interested in a sport he’s been involved in for 13 years.
Post-London, Mitcham hasn’t felt the slightest abdominal pain. Since rehab and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, his cravings for crystal meth have petered out. He has been back on the antidepressant Effexor for more than a year and has come to terms with the idea he may have to manage depression for the rest of his life. “I’m really good at the moment,” he reassures me.
Mitcham’s book is dedicated to his three half-siblings – his mother’s son Marcus, 15, and his father’s daughter Mia, 14, and son Ky, 10. If they read the book, it will be the first time they’ll have heard about his drug use. Why dedicate the book to them, then? “I don’t want them to experience some of the things I experienced,” he says slowly. “I really want them to be able to learn from some of the things I went through.”
Still, all of this only happened barely a year ago. Doesn’t his coach still worry about Mitcham? Sobrino shakes his head. “No, not any more. He’s across the line. The only thing that worries me now is the basic athlete-coach situation. I think he could train more!”
Watson feels the same. “If I wasn’t 100 per cent confident he had recovered, there is no way I’d be permitting this book to be released,” she says.
“He’s got such a strong support system,” adds Vivienne. “Everything’s out on the table now. He doesn’t have to run from it, or from anything.”
There’s also Lachlan. “He really looks after me,” Mitcham says. “I think he’s the only boyfriend I’ve had where I feel like he’s smarter than me.” (It is, he adds – half-joking, half-serious – “rather annoying”.) Though Mitcham’s a vocal advocate for same-sex marriage, he has no plan to marry if the legislation ever passes: “I’m so young,” he says. “Way too young to get married.”
Still, he thinks about the future often, acutely aware that all elite athletes have expiry dates. “Financial security is always going to be a stress for me,” he says. Right now, he is ineligible for certain sports grants because he failed to win medals in London, so he is studying linguistics part time at university and ramping up speaking and TV engagements. Mitcham can neither confirm nor deny a role on Seven’s forthcoming Celebrity Splash – a Dutch television format billed as “Diving with the Stars” (“Nothing will be confirmed for a while yet”). However, he does say that while he hasn’t yet wrapped his head around the concept of diving for entertainment (“that’s the elite athlete in me talking”), he hopes it will help kick-start a media career.
Until then, there is training. Poolside, Mitcham does an impossible number of somersaults off a diving springboard onto a thick pile of gymnastic mats. He spins so fast that he looks like CGI – the moves seem too quick to be believed or perceived properly by the human eye. Later, watching him dive, I can’t fathom how a human being stands with his back to a pool before somersaulting into their body while simultaneously pushing away from the springboard, all the while rotating 360 degrees, without killing themselves.
But that’s diving for you: a sport that’s less about averting disaster than managing the aerial chaos and inevitable collisions. During training, Mitcham botches some of the dives completely, but instead of beating himself up he comes out of the pool grinning, like he’s having fun. Matthew Mitcham is only diving now because he wants to. More importantly, he’s getting better at avoiding injury and pain.
Contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.