Heartbreaking truth behind Aussie Olympic champion's stunning rise

Chris Young
·4-min read
Matthew Mitcham, the first openly gay man to win Olympic gold, has opened up about the toll of hiding his sexuality during his younger years. Pictures: Getty Images
Matthew Mitcham, the first openly gay man to win Olympic gold, has opened up about the toll of hiding his sexuality during his younger years. Pictures: Getty Images

Australian diving champion Matthew Mitcham, the first openly gay man to win an Olympic gold medal, has opened up about how his struggles with his sexuality and self-image affected his career.

In a revealing and brutally honest interview with the BBC, Mitcham said he had quit the sport when he turned 18 and only took it up again just over a year out from the 2008 Beijing Olympics in which he etched his place in history.

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Mitcham said he had struggled with his sexual identity for years before coming out publicly prior to the 2008 games, even detailing his attempts to 'train' himself to be straight as a teenager.

This caused Mitcham to turn to binge drinking, despite not liking the taste of alcohol - simply drinking in order to pass out as quickly as possible.

“I was so scared of it 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 said.

“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.

“Diving became this darkness which permeated the rest of my life. I really hated it.

“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."

After he quit diving at 18, Mitcham credited the LGBTIQA community in Brisbane for keeping him on track, before an eventual move back to Sydney re-opened the door to his diving career.

Offered the opportunity to train and try out for the Olympic squad, Mitcham said he was motivated to quit drinking and get serious in order to be at his best.

It was in the lead-up to the Olympics that Mitcham revealed in an interview that he was gay, ultimately deciding to go ahead with the article.

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He said going public with his sexuality was the 'best decision I've ever made'.

“I was scared about the response, but going into the Olympics I didn’t want the Australian public to think of me one way – as straight – and then have to come out afterwards, feeling like I’d lied to them," he said.

“I thought it might mean I had no supporters, but the response was fantastic and I gained this enormous colourful worldwide community. It’s honestly the best decision I’ve ever made.”

Matthew Mitcham speaks about descent into drug use

Mitcham's remarkable turnaround culminated in his shock gold medal - but his Olympic success wasn't enough to lift him to the world No1 ranking, a blow which sent him spiralling into a brief drug addiction.

He told the BBC he had gone so far as to dabble in using crystal methamphetamine, somehow juggling his competitive career and not being found out by drug testers.

“Being an Olympic champion made me feel even worse because I had no right to feel that way when I had the world at my feet," he said.

“It got dark. My self-esteem was shattered, at times killing myself seemed like the easiest way to deal with this but I finally took myself to rehab.”

Matthew Mitcham officially retired from diving in 2016. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)
Matthew Mitcham officially retired from diving in 2016. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Mitcham eventually achieved the number one two years after his Beijing success, before bowing out of the 2021 London Olympics in the semi finals.

He retired from the sport for good in 2016.

The 32-year-old has since been married to long-term partner Luke Rutherford in February 2020. 

Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636, Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.

QLife (for LGBTQIA people): call 1800 184 527 or chat online

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