Mitcham, the man with the Midas touch
Matthew Mitcham is a young man who knows his place in the world of diving and more importantly knows his place in the world. The 2008 Olympic diving gold medallist wants to make a difference, especially in a sports mad country dominated by four football codes and what seems like a continuous game of cricket.
It is not easy to make a splash in Australian sport where football players can create headlines with a new hair cut and where cricket now seems like it’s played seven days a week, where a captain’s “baggy green” cap is Papal-like.
But Matthew Mitcham is determined to make a difference. A young man who revealed his homosexuality in a routine interview on the eve of his maiden Olympics in 2008 and went on to capture the hearts of a nation with “that dive”.
His “coming out” certainly raised some eyebrows, not so many in the public eye, but more within the conservative diving community, many believing it would act as a distraction as he worked towards his Olympic debut in Beijing.
But nothing could distract this determined youngster from achieving his dream and he thrilled the world with an extraordinary performance to become the first Australian man since Richmond “Dick” Eve in 1924 and only the third Australian (Chantelle Newbery in 2004) to win a coveted Olympic diving gold.
Mitcham bounced back from a disappointment on 3m in Beijing to gain instant recognition as the word spread around the Olympic city that a young Australian boy was challenging the Chinese not only in their own backyard but in one of their chosen sports.
An Aussie boy beating the Chinese on the 10m platform would be like Thorpie and Cathy Freeman getting dethroned over the 400 metres in Sydney 2000 – unthinkable.
Like turning the lights off in the illuminated Beijing Water Cube.
But this young man, born in Brisbane but who climbed to fame in Sydney under Brazilian master coach Chava Sobrino, rose to the occasion with his spectacular final dive on the final night of the Games.
The 20-year-old Sydney diver produced the highest scoring dive in the history of the Olympics with his sixth and final effort to create his own slice of Olympic history.
Mitcham was trailing China's Zhou Luxin by more than 30 points leading into the final round, but scored a whopping 112.10 on his last dive – a back two-and-a-half somersault with two-and-a-half twists – to pull off an stunning upset.
The 21-year-old finished with an overall score of 537.95 to defeat Zhou (533.15), who had led the final until the last round, to grab Australia's second diving medal of the Games.
I see myself with the responsibility of continuing on where others have been in my sport and it’s a responsibility I’m up for.
He is now known in Australia as “that diver” – the young man whose amazing talents off the 10m platform have seen him reach dizzy heights and recognition he would never have dreamed of.
He was named Australia’s Sports Performer of the Year in 2008 – leaving the likes of fellow Olympic gold medallists Stephanie Rice, Libby Trickett, Leisel Jones, Emma Snowsill, Steve Hooker and Ken Wallace in his wake.
Mitcham was also chosen to participate alongside a dozen of Australia’s best known athletes in “Rexona’s Fittest Athlete” a made-for-television contest alongside NRL superstars Billy Slater and Wendell Sailor, World Cup Socceroo Jason Culina and Ironman Shannon Eckstein.
This year he also shared a table with cricket’s next captain, Michael Clarke when a chosen few were selected to dine at Sydney’s Government House with his Royal Highness Prince William of Wales “I was so honoured,” said Mitcham, “to be chosen to sit next to the Prince was a very special occasion indeed and he actually knew of me and my Olympic gold medal dive.
“I was proud of myself and also proud of my sport that I could sit in such elite company and we discussed London and the fact that England’s Tom Daley, the current world champion, would be my main opposition if I wanted to repeat my effort in 2012 in London.”
Mitcham, now a full-time Bachelor of Arts and Science student at Sydney University, had to excuse himself early from the Royal luncheon to head off to Sydney Olympic Park and a training session at the New South Wales Institute of Sport.
He did have the National Championships only days away and “another commitment” – even though he was a special occasion could not be completely compromised.
Mitcham leads a busy life as he squeezes in his water and dry-land work leading into a Commonwealth Games year and a year of international competitions to hone his skills –skills that have to be sharpened to match not only the ever present Chinese but young Daley.
But as with most Olympic champions, Mitcham thrives on the responsibility of carrying on the amazing tradition that has been set up by the Australian divers who have gone before him.
“I see myself with the responsibility of continuing on where others have been in my sport and it’s a responsibility I’m up for,” says Mitcham.
“Australia has such a proud tradition in diving – with Chantelle in 2004 we have won Olympic gold at the last two Olympics, the only other country to do that has been China.”
Mitcham is not only an Olympic champion off the tower but a diver who is also world class on both the one and 3m boards and in the 3m and 10m synchro.
In recent times Australian divers such as Matt Helm (10m silver in Athens) and Robert Newbery (Olympic bronze in 2000, 2004) had set the standard off the coveted 10m tower – leading the way and mixing it with the best of the best on a world stage.
Helm not only won individual Olympic silver but combined with Newbery on synchro for a distinguished career, the highlight being gold in the FINA World Championships in Barcelona in 2003.
Mitcham is brave and bold enough in all corners of his life to tackle any hurdles thrown his way.
He has the utmost respect for Sobrino, the man who has guided him to gold on the boards, turned his body into one of the fittest athletes in the world and has also guided him in life.
“Chava is such an amazing man to all of us, he cares for us and he just gives so much of his time,” says Mitcham.
“I have never met anyone who gives of his time and so dedicated to all of us. I have so much respect for him and I feel as though I owe it (my career) to him. He is such an inspiration.”
Mitcham will spend the next two years honing his skills and mastering the list that will place him in the best possible position to defend his Olympic crown.
It is not going to be easy. There are new divers, with new dives and the “DD” will be something to behold when the best of the best are diving for gold.
Mitcham will start most of his competitions on every board – 1m, 3m and 10m and throw in the 3m and 10m synchro boards as well.
“I have nothing to lose,” says Mitcham, who won all three individual boards at the Australian Championships in 2009.
“Something may have to give in the shortened Commonwealth Games programme but I think I can be competitive on every board.
“I am excited about the possibilities and looking forward to the challenge.”
He will contest this year’s Commonwealth Games in Delhi in October before setting his sights on the FINA World Championships in Shanghai in 2011.
And knowing Mitcham he is bound to have some surprises up his sleeve as he prepares he continue a tradition in Australian sport dating back to Paris in 1924.
He and Sobrino have attracted a stunning array of talent to the newly created New South Wales Institute of Sport International Training Program at the Sydney Olympic Park Aquatic Centre.
The programme already included dual Olympian Alexandra Croak (Gymnastics in 2000 and Diving in 2008) and has attracted Melissa Wu (10m Synchro Diving silver 2008) and Scott Robertson (2008 Olympian).
And who knows, for Mitcham to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals it just might see him sharing some of that Papal status with the Aussie cricketers.