The 2014 Commonwealth Games will be Matthew Mitcham’s third and could well be the last opportunity the former Olympic gold medallist has to return to the top of his game, and the podium.
It’s easy to forget that the experienced Mitcham is just 26 years old.
After first representing Australia at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne at 18, Mitcham was thrust into the national eye two years later when he became the first Australian male to win diving gold in 84 years.
Not only that, but he was also the first openly gay male to win Olympic gold medal after coming out in an interview with Sydney Morning Herald journalist Jessica Halloran prior to the Beijing Games.
He did so in the most dramatic fashion possible, nailing the highest-scoring single dive in history on his final dive to claim victory in the 10-metre platform event.
Whether he liked it or not, Mitcham became the centre of attention for not only the Australian sporting public but of the gay community that had been inspired by both his courage to come out and his success.
For someone who had, like we have recently come to learn with Ian Thorpe, struggled with anxiety and depression as a teenager, the increased focus was always going to be difficult to deal with.
Coupled with the intense, unrelenting desire for perfection that truly elite athletes often possess, that focus became too much.
This was, after all, a boy who at 13 had been a world trampolining champion that had caught the eye of a diving scout and switched due to greater opportunities of becoming an Olympian.
Even then he’d had difficulty coping with the demands of a strict training regimen, and by 14 had been thrown out of his mother’s home after she discovered him self-harming with razor blades.
Living with his grandmother, Mitcham’s self-harm was replaced by alcohol and recreational drug use as a way of dealing with the demands.
So in late 2012 when, at just 24 and after failing to even reach the final in the 10-metre event at London, Mitcham admitted to using methamphetamine between the two Olympic Games it hardly came as a surprise.
Despite claiming gold Mitcham had still been ranked number two in the world after Beijing and in an interview given in 2012 he revealed that failure to reach the pinnacle had been the tipping point.
He had failed in his dream of becoming the world, he wrote in a 2012 autobiography entitled Twists and Turns, and in an interview that year explained why the letdown had led him to methamphetamine.
“It was the most effective thing I ever found to deal with my feelings,” he said.
“I’d been addicted to other drugs as a teenager, but when I gave them up to focus on my diving, I did so without ever addressing the underlying issues of my drug use.
“I thought I was fixed because I was able to go cold turkey.
“And it took a while for the problems to start manifesting themselves again, but they resurfaced in the void I experienced following the Beijing Olympics.”
Since his admission Mitcham has been able to turn his life around outside of the pool.
Following a successful crowd-funding project Mitcham starred in a cabaret adaptation of Twists and Turns, which debuted in February and opened in Melbourne in June, and is also enrolled in an arts and sciences degree, majoring in linguistics at the University of Sydney.
With Mitcham seemingly free of the personal issues that plagued his 2010 Delhi campaign – where he still finished with four silver medals – the question of Mitcham’s Glasgow prospects is an intriguing one.
Mitcham has spoken of his desire for success both here and at Rio in 2016 and despite a hectic schedule Mitcham insists his focus is on the pool.
“Right now my focus and priority is diving, and then when I get home it’ll be the show in Darwin,” he said.
“I think it’s part of a really healthy athlete to have that balance in their sport (and) in their life.”
Mitcham will compete in both the one-metre and 10-metre individual events, and teams up with Grant Nel in the three-metre synchronised springboard and Domonic Bedggood in the 10-metre synchronised platform.
Like Delhi, Mitcham again expects to be on the podium.
“I’m doing four events, so at least one gold medal would be nice” the 26-year-old Mitcham told reporters after touching down in Scotland..
“I’m expecting four medals, at the very least.”
Despite taking a break from the sport throughout most of 2013, Mitcham made an instant impact when he returned to the pool last December for the Australian Open Championships.
He won his pet 10-metre platform event with a score that ranked him in the world’s top six, was victorious in the one-metre springboard, finished second in the three-metre individual before teaming up with Nel to win the three-metre synchronised.
Mitcham returned to the world stage at a grand prix event at Madrid in February, where he was reminded of the gap he still needed to bridge to reach the elite.
Fifth and 11th-placed finishes greeted Mitcham in the 10-metre and three-metre individual events, while he and Nel finished third in the three-metre synchronised springboard.
It was a similar story at April’s Australian Diving Championships, which doubled as Commonwealth Games selection trials.
Mitcham was pipped in the 10-metre platform by Bedggood, but won the synchronised platform event with the 19-year-old as well as the three-metre synchronised with Nel.
A tendon injury in his elbow has hampered his preparation since, but Mitcham insists he is in peak physical shape ahead of the Games.
What is the competition?
At the 2010 Delhi Games Mitcham was edged out top spot in the 10-metre platform by Englishman Tom Daley, with whom Mitcham says he shares a close friendship.
Daley, now 20, went onto claim bronze at the London Olympics and the world number three will be favourite to go back-to-back in Glasgow.
His English teammate Dan Goodfellow has been forced to withdraw from the Games but he will be joined by 14-year-old Matthew Dixon, who makes his Games debut.
Malaysia’s Ooi Tze Liang placed fifth – one behind Daley – at the recent Diving World Cup in Shanghai and will be looking for a place in both this and the one-metre events, and after defeating Mitcham earlier in the year Bedggood will be another threat.
In the one-metre springboard nine-time Commonwealth Games gold medallist Alexandre Despatie, who won the event in 2002, 2006 and 2010, has retired.
England’s Jack Laugher won bronze at Shanghai in the three-metre springboard and will look to continue that in both individual springboard events. England will also have Chris Mears and Freddie Westwood in the event.
Alongside Reuben Ross, Despatie also won gold in the three-metre synchronised in 2010 and Mitcham and Nel’s recent performances will give them confidence of winning gold.
Despite teaming with Nick Robinson-Baker at the Delhi and London, Mears will join Laugher in the three-metre synchronised having placed as the highest Commonwealth pair, and fifth overall, at the recent World Cup meet.
Robinson-Baker will go into the same event with Westwood.
In the 10-metre springboard, Daley will be without his gold medal-winning partner Max Brick and will go into the event with James Denny, while Canadian duo Maxim Bouchard and Vincent Riendeau also loom as a danger to Mitcham and Bedggood.
Why is he a ‘must watch’?
The Australian public’s reaction to Ian Thorpe’s recent admission of the struggle in dealing with his sexuality throughout his career has been sympathetic, genuine and heartfelt.
Had Thorpe made this admission a decade ago while still an active professional, there would without doubt be a groundswell of public support behind him in his next major competitive event.
Here, with Mitcham, we get that opportunity to get behind a comeback.
It sounds cliched, and it is, but sport thrives on rise-and-fall stories such as Mitcham’s.
Finally, after almost a decade of various personal issues, he has got himself into the right headspace.
Whether, in spite of a lack of consistent competition since London, Mitcham can move onto the top of the podium remains to be seen but his story will be nothing if not a captivating one.
Name: Matthew Mitcham
Birthplace: Coopers Plains, Brisbane
Events: One-metre springboard individual, 10-metre platform individual, three-metre synchronised springboard, 10-metre synchronised platform
Honours: Gold medal 10-metre platform, 2008 Olympics; Silver one-metre springboard individual 2010 Commonwealth Games, Silver 10-metre platform 2010 Commonwealth Games, Silver three-metre synchronised 2010 Commonwealth Games, Silver 10-metre synchronised platform 2010 Commonwealth Games; Bronze one-metre springboard individual 2009 World Championships.
Twitter followers: 45,500
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– Mitcham was born and raised in Brisbane but lives in Sydney, where he studies a Bachelor of Arts and Sciences, majoring in linguistics, at the University of Sydney.
– His autobiography, Twists and Turns, has been made into a cabaret show after a crowd-funding project in late 2013. It has since premiered in Perth and Melbourne, and Mitcham will return to the stage after the Commonwealth Games.
– Mitcham was an early adopter of the ‘selfie’ craze, climbing to the top of the Olympic rings in London to get a snap that he then posted on Twitter.
– After debuting at the 2006 Commonwealth Games, Mitcham walked away from diving only to return in time to claim gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and become Australia’s first male diving Olympic gold medallist since Dick Eve in 1924.
– In 2013 Mitcham was a judge alongside fellow Olympians Alisa Camplin and Greg Louganis on the Australian diving show Celebrity Splash! that aired on Channel 7. Mitcham has stated previously that Louganis was an idol of his growing up, and he was inspired by reading Louganis’ biography Breaking The Surface in the leadup to Beijing.
– Mitcham was only introduced to diving at 13, after being spotted by a diving scout while skylarking at a local pool in Brisbane.
This article was first published on the Tenplay website here.