Matthew Mitcham, the first out athlete to win an Olympic gold medal with his performance in diving at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, recalls his career and coming out in a recent profile.
Prior to making history at age 20, the Australian swimmer’s “troubling childhood” saw him not only try to suppress his attraction to other men, but actively associate it with pain. Soon, Mitcham nearly derailed his career by abusing alcohol and other drugs before — and after — the 2008 games.
Facing “neglect” by his mother, who had mental health problems, and receiving Catholic schooling in Brisbane put pressure on Mitcham to suppress himself.
“I was so scared of [being gay] that I would actually tie a rubber band around my wrist and every time I had a gay thought I would snap it, to try and associate pain and suffering with the gay thought. To try and train myself out of being gay,” he revealed. “I felt stuck not being able to be authentically me. I didn’t want to admit I’d deceived people and lied for so long, which left me feeling alienated.”
Having to pretend to be straight to fit into the swimming world made him hate the sport at first. “Diving became this darkness which permeated the rest of my life. I really hated it, but I knew it was my one chance to be special,” he recalled to BBC Sport.
He struggled to keep going “effectively on autopilot” while posing as straight. That’s when he turned to substances — and not to cope.
“I would literally block my nose and drink, drink, drink because the aim wasn’t to get drunk, it was to throw up and pass out quicker than I did the week before. It was relief, escapism, and a way of shutting my brain off for a few hours, but it kept escalating.”
Mitcham struggled to continue and 15 months before the Olympics began he wasn’t actively diving anymore.
“I cut out everything that was unhealthy — obviously the drugs and alcohol — but also junk food and soft drinks because I didn’t want to jeopardize a chance to reach my first Olympics,” he explained. “The problem was that I was still thinking about drugs every day.”
While preparing for the Olympics, he “inadvertently” came out by mentioning the boyfriend he was living with to a journalist for the Sydney Morning Herald. The revelation made him an instant public figure and a rare out gay athlete.
“I was scared about the response” he admits, because “I thought it might mean I had no supporters, but the response was fantastic and I gained this enormous colorful worldwide community. It’s honestly the best decision I’ve ever made.”
In the end, Mitcham set records at the Olympics, including a record score for a single dive that remains unbeaten.
He would continue to compete professionally until 2016, although he fell into depression after 2010 over the post-Olympics “come down” of success and acclaim. He became addicted to methamphetamines and would try to kick the habit for weeks and months at a time before competitions to continue qualifying.
He retained the #1 diver rank until 2010, but didn’t qualify for the 2012 Olympics. He still enjoyed international success at other competitions and has remained clean in the five years since retiring.
“I’m really happy with how my life is, not least because I got married last year, so I’ve got a husband and he’s really good looking.”
He summarizes, “I’ve been hard on myself throughout my life, but I look back with kinder eyes now, and I’m proud of not only what I won but being able to do it all as an openly gay man, because of the oppression that is still felt in so many countries around the world.
“There have been other Olympic gold medallists since, and my Olympic record will be broken one day, but no one will ever be able to take away the fact I was the first openly gay male Olympic champion.”