The first out Olympic gold medalist in history was so ashamed and frightened of being gay as a youth, he tried using pain to train him into being straight. Retired Australian diver Matthew Mitcham took home the gold in the 10-meter platform competition and set the highest score for a single dive in the process at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but recently told BBC Sports of the struggles with mental health, addiction, and shame that troubled his life since childhood.
"I was so scared of it,” the 32-year-old Mitcham said, referring to his gay sexuality. "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.”
Mitcham revealed diving was an early escape from a childhood marred by neglect resulting from his mother’s mental illness. His efforts to train away the gay with the snap of a rubber band were predictably ineffective, and over time grew resentful of life as a closeted athlete.
“I felt stuck not being able to be authentically me,” Mitcham said.
He gave up diving and turned instead to alcohol and crystal meth to mask his pain. Hating the taste of alcohol didn’t stop the binge drinking.
"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 explained, describing it as “relief, escapism,” and a way to shut off his brain “for a few hours, but it kept escalating.”
After several years of self-abuse, he got sober, returned to diving, and qualified for the Olympics. He inadvertently outed himself in an interview before the 2008 games when he revealed he was living with his boyfriend, but decided to leave in the revelation and come out as gay.
"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 said.
Despite a “fantastic” response to coming out and calling it “the best decision” he ever made, not even Olympic gold could right his life. He enjoyed his win for a few days before he relapsed and began abusing crystal meth.
"It got dark," he said. "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.”
Life has changed for the better since then.
“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," Mitcham said, referring to husband Luke Rutherford.
Mitcham has no plans to return to the Olympics, satisfied with his medal and record, but also something more important.
"There have been other Olympic gold medalists 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," Mitcham beamed. “It was the most amazing feeling and my proudest achievement.”