Matthew Mitcham on recovery, resilience and being a role model
“Could you ever imagine that a gold medal would ever seem like an empty achievement to anybody?”
It’s a hot day by the ocean in Broadbeach and GC2018.com is catching up with Olympic and Commonwealth Games diving champion, Matthew Mitcham, who’s on the Gold Coast to launch the Festival 2018 program.
It’s hard to imagine now, seeing Mitcham strumming his ukulele under the shady trees in Kurrawa Park, that it took four years for the Olympic gold medallist to feel like he hadn’t ‘fluked’ his historic gold medal performance in Beijing in 2008.
Mitcham’s final dive in the 10 metre platform event scored four perfect 10s, the highest single-dive Olympic score in history. From the outside, it seemed like he was on top of the world, a gold medallist and the first Australian male diver to win Olympic gold since the 1920s.
Inside, he couldn’t have felt further from perfection.
“I thought it was a fluke,” Mitcham says.
“I looked at the FINA Diving website after Beijing and saw that I was ranked number two in the world because a Chinese diver had won more events earlier in the year than I had.
“This childhood thought that I’d always used as a motivator was that I wanted to be the best in the world at something, so all of a sudden this Olympic gold medal was not enough.”
In the years between Beijing and the 2012 Olympics, Mitcham embarked on a journey of personal development and mental health, recovering from addiction and crippling depression.
Mitcham is open about his struggles with drug addiction, ‘still an epic taboo in sport’, he says, and has been clean and sober for seven years.
Drugs were an escape from the thoughts and feelings that consumed him.
It was a hard cycle to break.
“I was using drugs to tune out,” Mitcham says.
“I couldn’t do life, I just couldn’t."
“I would promise myself with every single cell in my body, with absolute conviction that I was not going to use drugs again and I couldn’t keep that promise. And every time I couldn’t keep that promise, it tore my self-esteem in half again and again.
“Already having such a fragile self-esteem I realised I just couldn’t do it myself, so I took myself to rehab and that kick started this journey of personal development.”
Fast forward to 2018, Mitcham, 29, is an author, musician and writer and performer of two critically acclaimed cabaret musicals.
In a social climate of highlight reels and artificial perfection, Mitcham’s candour is refreshing and, he believes, absolutely necessary to shatter stereotypes and taboos.
It’s the stories of recovery, Mitcham emphasises, that are the most powerful, the precise reason honesty has been a non-negotiable in all aspects of his life.
The desire to help others through sharing his story led Mitcham to publish his autobiography Twists and Turns in 2012, then writing and performing a cabaret by the same name.
In 2017 he debuted his second cabaret show Under the Covers, which explored his transition from life as an elite athlete and more broadly, the universal struggles faced in times of transition.
Mitcham has overcome more challenges than many would face in a lifetime, but he says tackling them early helped him to deal with the transition to life after sport.
After winning Commonwealth Games gold in the synchronised 10m diving event with Domonic Bedggood in Glasgow, Mitcham was tempted to aim for one last Olympic Games, but he made the decision to retire in early 2016.
“I was pretty fortunate that I had massive meltdowns, psychological breakdowns before I retired,” Mitcham says.
“So I got that stuff addressed and then I anticipated that I would probably find that transition period difficult, so I put preventative measures in to deal with that transition because I expected to struggle with it, the identity crisis and all that sort of stuff.
“While I expected it to be difficult, I wasn’t entirely prepared for how difficult that would be so I did struggle.
“Certainly I know that I handled it a whole lot better than how other people handled it because I stayed clean and sober throughout that whole period.”
Mitcham may have retired from diving, but his career is just beginning. He’s studying at university, pursuing presenting work and an array of creative endeavours like cabaret, music, calligraphy and performing.
Where this next chapter will take him, Mitcham isn’t sure. But one thing is certain: he will keep striving to help others by sharing his story.
“I’ve got this history of being an athlete and still being a role model and I take that position very seriously,” he says.
“Unfortunately we see examples of people struggling and not recovering, but the more examples we have of high profile athletes sharing their struggles, but also their recovery, shows that recovery is possible and there is no shame in it.
“It shows how common it is, it shows that athletes aren’t immune. I think people hold athletes up on a pedestal and that they’re supposed to be superhuman, and I think athletes have this misconception as well. I certainly did when I was a teenager and I suffered from depression.
“I didn’t want to tell anybody because I didn’t want to be seen as weak. It’s not weakness to seek help, it’s actually a strength. It’s called resilience.”
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Matthew Mitcham’s daily practice
Matthew Mitcham’s road to recovery involved a range of tools and resources, but there’s one exercise he still completes daily. It’s a gratitude list, where he creates an artwork using calligraphy techniques, featuring three things he’s grateful for.
“One activity that I do every single morning is a gratitude list, so I write three things that I am grateful for first thing in the morning.
“They can be profound things or they can be completely flippant things like I [sic] love peanut butter, I am grateful every day for peanut butter. Or fingernails, you don’t think about how useful fingernails are, when you’ve got a really hard knot to undo or something in your teeth or when you’re itchy, fingernails are great.
“This activity is for just in case, because I do have a tendency to catastrophize. If everything in in my life just turns to absolute rubbish on one particular day and I feel like I’ve got nothing to live for, well at least I’ve got three things that I thought of that morning, so I don’t feel like I’ve got nothing.
“Doing art I find is very validating and joyful, so it’s a double whammy. It’s meditative and it’s creating a little bit of beauty, art, every day, as well as putting me in a great frame of mind for the rest of the day.”
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