DNA #156

Defying Gravity With Matthew Mitcham

Matthew Mitcham (John McCrea)

Autobiographies are often touted as tell-all but that’s rarely the case. Not so with Matthew Mitcham, whose new book Twists And Turns is tell-everything! Interview by Tim Warrington. Photography by John McCrea.

DNA: Twists And Turns: why now? You’re only 24.

Matthew Mitcham: Because HarperCollins approached me and I thought, “Great, they want to publish my book; I’m not going to turn that down!” Although I must admit, I did think it was a bit ridiculous writing my autobiography at 24, but this is only the first part. There will be more… I hope there will be more. I hope the next 24 years of my life are just as interesting.

You’ve achieved a lot for a 24-year-old and the book is a pretty comprehensive account.

It is very detailed. It needs to be when you’re telling your life story at 24, otherwise it would be a very short book. I was very frank – warts and all!

You talk candidly about your crystal meth addiction.

It was part of my motivation for writing the book. I felt that the things I’ve been through carry an important message. Sharing my experiences could be a powerful way to help de-stigmatise drug addiction. And if my story helps one person, then it’s been worth it.

I was so ashamed of my drug dependency that I hid it from everyone. It went on for so long because I didn’t reach out. And when I did eventually reach rock bottom and seek help, that’s when it started to get better. Every time someone in the spotlight talks about something like drug addiction, it helps to break down the stigma. If we make it easier for people to talk about it, they don’t need to suffer in silence. You recover faster when you’re able to talk about these types of issues. And I saw my own experience as a powerful tool to shine a light on these issues.

You battled depression, too?

Yes. As a teenager I suffered depression and was self harming. I had pretty profound depression from about 14 to 18. I realised that I could have saved myself a lot of heartache if I’d just been able to talk to someone about it. It was the shame I felt that prevented me from reaching out and getting the help I needed.

You once said you came out to deny people the opportunity of gossiping. Were your revelations in the book similarly motivated?

Partly. I was unsure whether to include the content about my drug addiction right up until we went to print. I was afraid of the damage it could do to my career. I did a very good job of keeping it quiet – nobody knew – and I could have got away with it. Ultimately though, I decided to include it because we need to demystify things like drug addiction and mental illness so that people feel comfortable discussing them and asking for help.

You’ve always been quite an open person. You came out quite young.

Yes. To my friends and family when I was about 14 or 15. When I told my mum I might be bisexual, she was like, “Derr.” But I did do the transitional bi thing.

I was bisexual for about 20 minutes, how long were you bi?

[Laughs] I was still having sex with girls up until a couple of months before I met Lachlan. I guess I needed to make sure. If this was my identity, it was important to be absolutely authentic in this identity. I wanted to make sure that I tested all the options – what I was actually choosing was going to be right for me. I don’t know if I have chosen, but I met Lachlan and we’ve been together for six-and-a-half years.

So, you’ve written a book, do you have a writing background?

[Laughs] No! English was my worst subject at school. I was good at science and languages because the answer is either right or wrong; they’re not subjective. With English, I was great at grammar and spelling because the answer is usually right or wrong. I was really shit at the content because it’s subjective.

So what happened? You’re a published author now.

I had help in the beginning. When I first sat down to write, I just couldn’t do it. I’d write
a couple of sentences and then go find a distraction. It took me about three months
to write the first chapter. So, I came back
to HarperCollins and said I can’t do this
by myself and they asked Larry Writer to help me. He co-wrote Chrissy Amphlett’s biography, Pleasure And Pain: My Life as well as Underbelly Razor. During our sessions he helped me find a logical structure. Sometimes he would record the session and have it typed up. Then I went through several rounds of edits to make sure everything was in my own voice. Sometimes I would add anecdotes and sometimes delete content. The editing process alone took a few months.

Start to finish, how long?

Eighteen months.

What else were you good at, at school? Sport presumably.

No! I was not a sporting kid whatsoever. I was really uncoordinated – skinny, with nobbly knees, I was always picked last. I really was rubbish, but luckily I found trampolining and diving.

Was writing the book therapeutic?

[laughs] Sure! I was afraid that my brain was turning to Swiss cheese and I was going to forget important information by the time I turned 25. I began writing around the same time I sought help for my drug addiction, so it became an important part of the recovery process. I trained, had Narcotics Anonymous sessions, therapy, writing and more training as well as my stint in rehab. I didn’t find writing about drugs therapeutic, but reminiscing about my childhood and the trauma that happened to me there was definitely beneficial. I had to really relive those experiences and try to figure out what I was actually feeling – try to work through a lot of feelings I’d suppressed.

Have you had any negative responses?

A few cynical people, but 99 per cent supportive. There was some ignorant vitriol calling me a
“cheat” and a “sook”. I’m not a cheat. I was just doing the drugs to change my feelings and there was were no performance enhancement benefits. I always detoxed and it certainly wasn’t helping my training.

The reaction seems to be one of surprise and concern.

I’m really glad that I have been so open about all this stuff, because I haven’t given people a reason to doubt me. I’ve always been open and honest about everything, starting with my sexuality. The fact is I didn’t needed to include the drug addiction but as I said, if it helps just one person then it’s been worthwhile.

Is crystal meth a big problem in the gay community?

It is pretty endemic, however, it’s not just the gays. It’s often referred to as “Mummy’s little helper” because there are so many housewives addicted to it. But again, because it’s so taboo no one talks about it and this only exacerbates the problem. My partner didn’t even know. I hid it from him that well.

So he never found out?

No. I told Lachlan about a year after it started. It was easy for me to hide and for a long time I was too scared to tell him.

What else scares you? Leaping off a 10-metre platform, you’re obviously not scared of heights.

Bugs.

Well that’s up there with public speaking and heights as a pretty common fear.

I’m not scared of public speaking. Sure, I get nervous. I still get nervous doing interviews.

Are you nervous now?

Yes. I’m nervous now. And when I get nervous my mouth dries up and I start to shake because I’m so nervous. And then I worry that people are going to think I’m on drugs during interviews because I’m shaking and that worries me too, which exacerbates the problem [laughing]. But I have done a lot of work on this and I know how to stop stressing; how to let it go, which is a big thing for me.

So you’re a little bit shy? You walk around in your speedos in front of millions of people, how shy can you be?

I think perhaps that’s a persona I’ve projected to compensate – a self-protection mechanism. I’ve been really outgoing and really open and friendly. At a book launch last night I spoke for about 15 minutes and then did Q&As and my boyfriend was just blown away because he’s never heard me do public speaking before; his jaw was literally on the floor. Look, it takes a lot of practice and I do get very nervous but I also enjoy it.

You get a buzz out of it?

[Big laugh] Just a natural high! I usually get a good response to my public and TV appearances and this encourages me to do more. Judith Lucy’s coping mechanism in times of stress is, “to drink herself a new arsehole”.

What’s your coping mechanism?

[Laughs] I used to use drugs and alcohol occasionally, but not often because you obviously can’t do that when you’re competing or on television. The counselling I’ve had has helped a lot. I used to get nervous because I felt like I always had to get it right because I’m the worst kind of perfectionist. Learning to allow myself to make mistakes has really reduced my anxiety a lot.

Do you feel like there’s too much pressure on public figures?

When you’re in the public eye you automatically become a role model, whether you like it or not. And of course there are good and bad role models: those that embrace their position and try to set a good example and those that try to shun the position and perhaps aren’t quite as concerned about setting a good example. I made a conscious decision to always be a good role model because I wanted one as a teenager. And I guess for a couple of years I felt like a massive sham because I was talking the talk but I wasn’t walking the walk; I was doing bad things in my private life. And I was so ashamed of what I was doing that I hid it. It’s taken time and a lot of work, but now I feel like I’m walking the walk again.

Is the media attention ever too much?

No. I don’t think I’ll ever reach the level of celebrity where I’m mobbed in the streets. After the Olympics I had a few people come up to me in public, which is always nice. But it’s been a while since Beijing, so it’s not often people approach me.

In Beijing you achieved the highest score in Olympic history for a single dive. Wow!

[Smiles] Yeah, that’s cool.

Has it sunk in?

It did eventually. And it’s things like this that I use to boost my self-esteem now. In the past I used to compare myself to everybody. But the comparisons were never favourable so I always felt less than everyone around me, which fuelled the feelings of insecurity, adding to my depression and anxiety. So, it’s things like winning the gold medal that I remind myself of to maintain a positive outlook. These days I look inward, at things I’ve done to boost my self esteem, rather than comparing myself to others.

How did you cope with the disappointment at the London Olympics?

[Smiles] Remarkably well! Look, I knew I was under prepared and I had no hope of defending my Olympic title because of injuries, preparation time and how I was feeling physically. I was prepared for what happened. That’s why I was doing so much intensive work with my psychologist to help reframe my response to what happened. We worked through all the scenarios to their logical end. What’s the worst that can happen? Exactly what happened. And then follow that through. What next? People might start not liking me because I had failed. But would that really matter? No. My family and friends (all the people that matter) would continue to love me unconditionally because that’s what they do. And that’s really all I need. So, when I logically anticipated the outcome in my head and stopped catastrophisizing, I realised it wasn’t that bad at all. Sometimes when the worst case scenario does happen, it’s really not that bad when you look at the logical outcome.

The psychological preparation and personal development work has paid off?

Absolutely. But at the time it was hard to see the benefits. It’s hard to see the tangible results as your mental health improves. You don’t get an award or trophy for that. It’s a hard thing to gauge. But the way I coped with the result at the London Olympics made me realise that it was all worthwhile. It helped me pick the positives out of a negative situation.

Do you ever wonder about the outcome, had you reached the final?

I don’t think I would have won a medal. The top six would have been a good result.

Is there another sport you could do that doesn’t depend on split second timing, like rowing, badminton or synchronized swimming? It must be hard to miss a final because of one mistake, like you did at the London Olympics?

It wasn’t just one mistake. And that was a really, really big mistake I made on the last dive. I made other mistakes throughout the competition. I also did some really fucking awesome dives! But it’s all about how those points accrue. The person who wins always deserves it because they’ve been more exceptional in more cases, more consistent than the other people. That’s why there are so many dives, so many judges and so many rounds to eliminate anomalies in the scoring.

Did you worry that people would accuse you of being a cheat when you revealed your drug usage?

I don’t think people can accuse me of being a cheat. Firstly, I always detoxed so there was nothing in my system when I competed and secondly, crystal meth is not helpful for diving. It’s a precision sport not an endurance sport or one of absolute speed or strength.

There’s no denying the impact of social media on today’s society, but with the rise in cyber bullying do you think the good outweighs the bad?

Because it’s still relatively new, the appropriate social guidelines and etiquette haven’t been applied yet. People feel brave enough to be keyboard warriors and say this vicious, awful, nasty stuff because it’s an impersonal way of communicating and they don’t feel like they’re at risk – they’re protected by distance and anonymity.
It’s great that while they’re rolling out the National Broadband Network, they’re also introducing a code of conduct to deal with discrimination, harassment and bullying online. And of course there have been a few high profile cases where people have been made accountable for comments made online. The guy who made those awful comments about Tom Daley was eventually arrested.

Stephanie Rice made some unpleasant comments when Australia beat the South African Rugby team…

“Suck on that faggots.” A bad choice of words and poor judgement on her part but I have never perceived her as a homophobic person and we’ve spent quite a lot of time together. She’s not homophobic.

She fucked up?

She fucked up.

Do you think there’s a lot of homophobia in sport?

Like the rest of society, there’s probably less than there used to be, but it’s always going to be harder in sport, especially team sports.

Have you experienced any personally?

Yes I have. Perhaps it’s harder when you play in a team or train in a team like I did. That’s why I didn’t come out until I moved to Sydney because I felt like I was being dishonest to the people I’d been training with for four years.
People, boys particularly, can easily fall into pack mentality. Individually they may not really have an issue with gay people but as a group they feel peer pressure and they don’t want to be seen as weak if they’re accepting of homosexuality. By being out and proud and successful I think I’ve proven that the world doesn’t cave in if you’re an out gay sportsperson.

And more gay men are coming out.

Yes. But not nearly enough. There haven’t been as many people coming out as I would have hoped. There were only a couple at the London Olympics. Blake Skjellerup, the iceskater from New Zealand came out and said that my story helped so that was nice to near. There are a few divers but they’re not quite at that level where they’re receiving a lot of media attention.

Is Tom Daley gay?

He says he’s not.

I’ve heard rumours that you’re keen on a career in TV.

[Laughs] Yes, I’m trying to get a real job.

What’s a real job?

Diving isn’t a real job; it’s like a full-time job that pays like a part-time job.

Marjory Jackson, the Lithgow Flash, won two gold medals in the Olympics in Helsinki in 1952. Later she became Governor of South Australia. Could you ever see your self as a senior government official, swanning about in a palatial residence?

That does sound lovely. I toyed with idea of being a diplomat because I’d like to use my languages but I’m not very knowledgeable when it comes to politics and think that would be essential.

But I’ve heard it’s just a lot of cocktail parties and wining and dining.

[Laughs] Yes, well, I’m trying to stay away from that sort of stuff for a while.

We don’t hear too much about your partner Lachlan. Is he media shy?

He’s really shy. Almost painfully shy.

More so than you?

Oh yeah. I’m exuberant and boisterous and completely outgoing in comparison He’s a silent supporter and he doesn’t want attention. He prefers to stay at home. There’s not a lot of information out there about Lachlan and he prefers it that way.

Does he make you breakfast in bed?

[Laughs] If I ever have a day off. And if he gets up before me or I’m reeling rotten. But he does other far more romantic gestures than that. He spoils me rotten and loves me more than anything. He’s wonderful.

He’s more romantic than you?

[Thinking] Yes… uhmmm… I’m not sure. I’m really against the idea of flowers – spending so much money on something that only lasts a couple of days. I prefer to give presents that last.

But flowers are a grand romantic gesture… I’m not going to convince you am I?

No. After three days, they just look rotten. But I will buy Lachlan a big bunch of oriental lilies if I’m in the doghouse.

Are you often in there?

[Laughs] Not these days. It’s been a while. It was quite bad when I was going through my stuff. I pushed him away. I was snappy and cranky.

Did you ever come close to losing him?

I tried to break up with him a few times because I blamed the relationship for the unhappiness I was feeling. I saw Lachlan as an obstacle between me and using drugs because I hadn’t realised that the drug use was a symptom of my depression. But once I got clean, our relationship improved out of sight and it’s been absolutely amazing ever since.

Have you ever had a wardrobe malfunction?

Yes. My togs came down to my ankles once. Fortunately, there were no cameras at this competition. I didn’t end up on oops.com.

I heard you once dressed up as a silver unicorn for a Lady Gaga concert.

I think that’s probably an example of me being shy. I know it doesn’t sound like it! It’s a pretty big statement to dress up like that and I was tweeting her before hand and I told her I’d love to meet her and I’d bring my gold medal to show her. But when it came to the crunch I was actually too self-conscious to go backstage to see her.

On the subject of costumes, have you ever done drag?

Yes and my name used to be Matilda Moneypenny. If I was ever to do drag again my new drag persona would be Jacqui Moff. Mine’s Tormi Anus.

Ha ha – very good! But my favourite drag name of all time is Jeanette Regrette Rien. H

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