Warning: This article includes references to drug addiction, suicide and mental health issues.
“Winning Olympic gold is the most extreme natural high you can ever experience,” says Matthew Mitcham, who then pauses, laughs and adds: “That’s why I became a drug addict!”
This light-hearted reaction may seem at odds with such a serious subject matter, but Australian former diver Mitcham is now a happily married man, fully at peace with his troubled past at the age of 32.
In January he celebrated being five years clean from the “crippling” daily drug and alcohol consumption he says drove him to consider taking his own life on more than one occasion.
He is also aware that, while the post-Games comedown – often referred to as ‘Olympic blues’ – was a key factor in his struggles, his problems really began long before.
His process of recovery has been helped most of all by reflection, looking back on the troubled path that led to a historic achievement – becoming the first openly gay man to win individual Olympic gold.
Mitcham had a challenging childhood. He craved an escape from the “neglect” he endured living in Brisbane with his mother, who struggled with mental health problems.
He also realised from a young age that he “liked boys”, but pressure from society, bullies and his Catholic convent primary school left him feeling “ashamed” of his sexuality.
“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 tells BBC Sport.
Diving was initially an escape, but having presented himself as straight to his team-mates for years, he began resenting the sport.
“I felt stuck not being able to be authentically me,” he says. “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, but I knew it was my one chance to be special, so I kept going, effectively on autopilot.”
This is how Mitcham slipped into depression. As a young teenager he would regularly self-harm, take drugs and binge-drink, despite “hating the taste” of alcohol.
“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,” he recalls.
“It was relief, escapism and a way of shutting my brain off for a few hours, but it kept escalating.”
At 18, Mitcham quit diving and spent a year doing “very unhealthy things” with his body, but he also grew more confident with his identity after being embraced by Brisbane’s LGBT+ community.
He admits it took him six months to stop hating diving. It was another three before he missed competing. Offered a chance to return in late 2006, he relocated to Sydney to make an official comeback, just 15 months before the Beijing Olympics.
“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 jeopardise a chance to reach my first Olympics,” he says.
“The problem was that I was still thinking about drugs every day.”
Mitcham did not plan to come out publicly, but inadvertently revealed he was living with his boyfriend during a pre-Games interview. After consulting friends, he gave the go-ahead for the article to be published.
“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 says.
“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.”
He smiles when he recalls the “mind-blowing” experience in Beijing and brings out his best Welsh accent to mimic Little Britain character Daffyd when describing himself as the “only gay in the village” at those Games.
The big day came on 23 August, 2008, the penultimate day of competition.
Hosts China were expected to complete a clean sweep of the diving medals and secure their ‘lucky’ eighth gold with success in the men’s 10m platform event.
Mitcham had other ideas. With his final routine he set an Olympic record score for a single dive – 112 – to stun the home crowd.
“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,” he says.
“It was the most amazing feeling and my proudest achievement.”
Mitcham jokes that winning Olympic gold “magically” transformed his image, but in reality it did not make him happier.
Then aged 20, he enjoyed his success for a “matter of days” before discovering he was still ranked as world number two behind Chinese rival Zhou Luxin – the Olympic silver medallist – who had attained more success in the World Series.
“It shouldn’t have, but it sent me into a downward spiral of crippling self-doubt again because I’d had this obsession about being the best in the world,” says Mitcham.
“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.”
“Ashamed,” Mitcham slipped back into old habits. He became addicted to crystal meth. He hid his habit from those around him.
“Knowing I would be drug-tested at every competition I would detox from drugs for the weeks before competing and I’d go through these horrible withdrawals,” he recalls.
“They were so bad that I’d promise myself with every cell in my body that I was not going to use again, but I couldn’t ever keep the promise.
“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.”
Mitcham, incredibly, achieved the world number one ranking he craved in 2010, but injury problems saw him eliminated in the semi-finals at London 2012 and, although he would add a maiden Commonwealth title to his collection in 2014, he retired in early 2016.
The Australian has been clean ever since and in February last year married his British partner Luke Rutherford.
“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,” says Mitcham with a beaming smile.
“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.
“In Beijing there were 11 openly LGBT athletes and then there were over 20 at London 2012 and more than 40 in Rio 2016, so it’s doubling each Games.
“I’m pleased to have hopefully played a small part in that because visibility is so important.”
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