In a new interview with BBC Sport, Matthew Mitcham, 32, opens up about the long road to accepting himself as a gay man, and the awful toll it took on his performance and his body. As he began to realize his attraction to men as a teenager, Mitcham tried desperately to deny his feelings.
“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,” said the diver who won gold at the 2008 Bejing Olympics. “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.”
For Mitcham that meant consuming large amounts of drugs and alcohol to forget the truth.
“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 said. “It was relief, escapism and a way of shutting my brain off for a few hours, but it kept escalating.”
Mitcham’s depression got so bad, he actually quit diving for a time. His redemption took place 15 months prior to the 2008 Olympics. When a second chance to compete presented itself, Mitcham quit drinking and staged an athletic comeback, eventually winning gold.
He then came out as gay, which proved stressful if liberating.
“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 afterward, feeling like I’d lied to them,” he admits. “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 same interview, Mitcham went on to detail a brief relapse following his Olympic win when “come down” from success pushed him back into depression. He became addicted to crystal meth and contemplated suicide before admitting himself to rehab.
These days Mitcham is much happier–and clean of drugs and alcohol. He married his husband Luke Rutherford in February 2020 and discovered newfound pride in his coming out, which has opened the door to other gay athletes competing in the Olympics.
“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. “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.”