Matt’s Next Act
UPDATE: In early February, Australia's largest telecommunications company -- Telstra -- announced Matthew Mitcham as its spokesperson.
Also: Check out The Advocate's sizzling photo shoot with gold medal Olympic diver Matthew Mitcham.
"Matthew Mitcham has done something that nobody in the world thought anyone in the world could do!"
That’s a pretty lofty accomplishment to ascribe to just anyone, especially a gentle, smile-prone 20-year-old who looks less like a world-class Olympian and more like the little brother whose head is always ripe for a noogie or two. But when Australian diver Matthew Mitcham executed the highest-scoring dive in Olympic history at the Beijing Games last August -- a complicated-sounding maneuver known as a back 2½ somersault with 2½ twists -- those words, uttered by gobsmacked NBC commentator Cynthia Potter, couldn’t have rung truer.
It was a sensational come-from-behind victory that proved why so many people still consider the Olympics the best reality show on TV. Every broadcaster dreams of catching a moment like Mitcham’s gold medal–clinching dive on camera and sharing it with the world. Every athlete dreams of being the person who engenders that thrill. But more than that, every gay and lesbian fan of the Olympics -- and there are many -- can’t help but dream of seeing one of us in the middle of that moment. Matthew Mitcham became that person on August 23, 2008. His win dashed China’s well-documented hopes of sweeping all eight gold medals in the sport. It galvanized his small but committed network of supporters at home and abroad. And it made a special kind of history, because it was achieved by an out gay man, with his partner watching from the stands, in a country notorious for its poor record on human rights.
So what exactly does Mitcham do for an encore? “I don’t want to be just a one-minute wonder,” he says. “I do want to continue being the best, so that when [people] think back, there will be no doubt in their minds that Matthew Mitcham was the best diver of his time. I don’t want people to think that winning the gold medal in Beijing was just me being lucky, you know?”
One peek at Mitcham’s grueling training schedule proves that he means what he says. On weekdays he treks from his suburban Sydney home -- which he shares with his partner of more than two years, student Lachlan Fletcher -- to the Sydney Olympic Park Aquatic Centre, an imposing complex where he trains with coach Chava Sobrino for five to six hours each day. On Saturdays he’s back again for an abbreviated workout. Sundays remain the proverbial day of rest, but that’s just semantics -- in more ways than one. For all his enviable focus -- the kind that was required to help him complete that thrilling dive -- Mitcham retains a youthful, restless energy that’s on full display as he dashes into the Qantas First Class Lounge at Sydney’s Kingsford Smith International Airport for our interview. His shock of spiky blond hair is still wet, and he’s clad in a tight-fitting lime-green T-shirt, jeans, and low-top Converse tennis shoes. In a cheeky sartorial touch that’s vintage Mitcham, his ankle socks are a distinctive shade of pink. Soon after our talk, Mitcham will make his way to a separate terminal, greet a friend of Fletcher’s who’s visiting for the weekend, and head to an afternoon barbecue. It’s the capper to a busy week of pomp and circumstance -- days ago, Mitcham traveled to Melbourne and upstaged a field of better-known Aussie athletes (including triple gold medalist and local tabloid staple Stephanie Rice) by winning the 2008 Sports Performer of the Year award, a prize that’s voted on by the Australian public. Australia GQ also named him its Sportsman of the Year. “I think the last thing I said onstage there was, ‘Oh, my God, I’m a homo and I just won the sports award!’” he laughs. “People just pissed themselves and thought it was hilarious.”
Producers and photographers confer with Mitcham throughout the shoot.
Mitcham’s self-deprecating sense of humor borders on puppy-dog adorable. In a news conference just after his win, he lamented that he didn’t get to sightsee or shop during his time in China, paused for a beat, and blurted out, “But…who cares, I’ve got this!” referring to his medal. It’s this endearing inability to be anybody but himself that makes his fans -- gay, straight, whatever -- so loyal. And when he was put to the test on the world’s most important athletic stage, Mitcham aced it. He walked into the Games with nothing more than a bronze medal in his sights. “That was the ultimate,” he says, “the very pinnacle of what I thought I could achieve in Beijing.” A disastrous 16th-place finish in his first competition, the men’s three-meter springboard, indicated that he’d probably return home empty-handed. But Mitcham rallied, top-rated Chinese competitor Zhou Luxin faltered on his final dive, and suddenly Australia could claim its first men’s diving gold medal in 84 years.
The images are indelible: Mitcham nervously watches the leader board for the final results, and when the magnitude of what he’s just accomplished begins to sink in, his face crumples into a touching mixture of exhaustion and overwhelming disbelief, and it’s covered in honest-to-God tears of joy. “I remember the things that I was thinking on the platform before the dive, and I remember what happened as soon as I hit the water,” he recalls. “The dive itself is a bit vague. It felt good, although I wasn’t exactly sure. I did wait underneath the water a bit, thinking, I wonder…I wonder…I wonder… Then I popped my head out and the crowd was going wild. I looked over at Chava and he looked excited. It was the most far-out experience. It just completely took me over and I just lost it. And I think everybody loved that I lost it.”
For gay and lesbian viewers, there was something intensely satisfying about Mitcham’s unguarded behavior both in and out of the water. A lot of us fell for him the first time we saw him emerge from the pool with a gigantic smile on his face and a move that quickly became his trademark. His hands positioned along his hips, Mitcham would wave to both the crowd and the camera in a quick burst of excited energy, a motion better known in theatrical circles as the universally lampooned “jazz hands.”
“If I’m happy, I want people to know that I’m happy,” he explains. “Nobody likes to watch a grumpy diver. Happiness and laughter is infectious, and it can be passed on so easily. I think everybody loved that I was enjoying the competition.” This focused, easygoing demeanor won everyone over. “When the Americans won the 100-meter relay, they got out of the water, and they were pumping the air,” says Kate Rowe, vice president of diversity for the Federation of Gay Games, which has secured Mitcham’s support for its 2010 competition in Cologne, Germany. “The testosterone put me off. And then this guy does this cute little wave as if to say, ‘Hi, everybody! I’m here and I’m having a great time.’ It was such a different, positive energy. He was sending out a message that you can be who you are and it’s OK. And isn’t that what we all want?”
There are hints, though, that opting to disclose his sexual orientation to The Sydney Morning Herald three months before heading to Beijing may have done Mitcham some damage. Despite the accolades and awards that flooded his way in the wake of the win, Mitcham remains surprisingly below the radar in his home country, where swimming and rugby take precedence. It didn’t help that Michael Phelps dominated both the aquatic sports arena and the entire Olympic Games or that Mitcham had reentered the world of competitive diving just nine months before he clinched the gold. “It’s a little bit of a joke in my manager’s office,” Mitcham says. “Everybody in Australia knows me as ‘that diving guy,’ so they call me T.D.G.”
His profile is even lower in the States, where Olympic viewers were fed gobs of coverage of Americans David Boudia and Thomas Finchum, who finished in 10th place and 12th place, respectively, in the individual 10-meter platform event that Mitcham won. The American media spotlight on Mitcham was comparably dim. NBC commentators did mention his dramatic backstory: After battling anxiety, depression, and burnout, Mitcham simply walked away from diving for more than six months in 2006. But that was as far as the network went. Boyfriend Fletcher’s name was never announced on the air, his presence in the stands never noted. Mitcham’s fifth-round dive wasn’t even broadcast. And even though Mitcham climbed into the stands to hug and kiss Fletcher after the medal ceremony, we never saw it. Soon afterward, an NBC spokesperson awkwardly tried to defend the network against accusations of censorship with the easily debunked excuse that “in virtually every case, we don’t discuss an athlete’s sexual orientation.” (NBC eventually issued a statement apologizing for the “unintentional omission.”)
Mitcham has been unfailingly circumspect when asked about the brouhaha -- last year he told one journalist that “people got really upset about it for their own reasons, but personally I didn’t care,” and he seems genuinely surprised that there was an uproar in the first place. Indeed, he treads lightly every time conversation veers toward controversy, and when asked if he understands the disappointment that drove so many to push NBC for an explanation, he looks down, picks at the calluses on his palms, and again toes the line: “NBC said that it was not on purpose, and you know…I have to take that at face value. I wasn’t that upset because I knew that by coming out, it wouldn’t all be smooth sailing. I do understand that people were upset. But it wasn’t my fight. No controversy for me. I’m thick-skinned.”
When Mitcham appears at speaking engagements, he likes to share a familiar children’s tale with the audience. “You know how the ugly duckling wasn’t like the other ducklings?” he asks. “I wasn’t like the other kids. I was smaller, I was scrawnier, I wasn’t good at soccer or cricket or football, and I never won a blue ribbon.” There was bullying and there were schoolyard taunts, but Mitcham insists that none of it was severe. “We all get it,” he shrugs, “but others got it worse than I did. I was just so open with [my sexuality] that everybody knew. It was like it was no fun to call somebody a homo who really is a homo.” And when he came out to his mother, Vivienne, at the age of 14, “she said, ‘Well, du-u-uh!’” In a lot of ways, Mitcham embodies Gen Y’s decidedly post-gay outlook, so it should come as no surprise that he seems uneasy with the notion that his accomplishments make him more vital than anybody else who chooses to live life openly. “I never made the choice to be a role model,” he insists. “But as soon as somebody looks up to you or finds something in you that they like, you become one. And that’s something that you have to either honor and respect or reject. I honor it.”
“Everybody wants a piece of him now, especially the gay community,” Rowe says. “He’s an incredible inspiration. But to put him up there as a role model is putting too much on him. He’s an athlete training at a level that 99.5% of the world will never experience. They will never understand the dedication that’s required to do that. But by the same token, he’s very comfortable with himself, and that’s the message that’s good for the community.”
But even if Matthew Mitcham is the world’s best diver, it hasn’t translated to a raft of endorsements. He’s been tapped to be chief of Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade, an unpaid, honorary position recently held by Margaret Cho and Rupert Everett. But although there has been some discussion with several sponsors, not a single company or brand has yet stepped forward to announce that Mitcham has received a major endorsement, calling into question whether his visibility as a newly minted gay icon may have hurt his chances at a lucrative deal. (Much of Mitcham’s training and competitive travel is underwritten by federal and state funding; sponsorship dollars would ostensibly be used to help him defend his title at the 2012 Games in London.) “Coming out may not have been very wise of him,” laments fellow diver Alex Croak, a longtime friend who trains with Mitcham. “I’m not an expert in marketing and don’t know what companies look for, but perhaps it [hurt him] as it is a risk for companies to take.”
Rightly or not, Mitcham is often compared to Greg Louganis, another good-looking, affable Olympic diver, who roped in endorsement deals from the likes of Speedo and Banana Boat. But Mitcham’s story is vastly different: Louganis waited until 1994 -- six years after his final Olympic bow -- to come out of the closet, and although his affiliation with Speedo continued, even after he announced his HIV-positive status the following year, he subsequently lost all his other deals. Marketing expert Jim Andrews, a senior vice president at leading sponsorship development firm IEG, says the lack of endorsements is not surprising. “Opportunities really are limited for most Olympic athletes,” he says. “We always talk about who’ll win the marketing gold, but when we go back and look at the winners, it’s a pretty small group that’s gotten substantial money. From a corporate standpoint, these folks drop off the radar screen [after the Olympics]. And diving is not a sport that we are tuning in to watch every Sunday.”
Still, Mitcham’s come-from-behind triumph was nothing less than a marketer’s dream, and the lack of interest -- especially from Australian agencies looking to make a buck off arguably the nation’s most compelling new athlete -- is baffling. “That story is exactly what you want as a sponsor,” Andrews argues. “It pulls on the emotional heartstrings. You look for that. You can create a strong platform around pure performance” -- think Michael Phelps and Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt -- “but most marketers want that emotional tug as well. Here’s a guy who had the courage to come out. It’s not easy to be out in any sport. And his win was tremendous because it was so unexpected.”
Mitcham remains hopeful that he’ll eventually score a deal that can further define the persona he’s trying to craft as he trains for London. His management team wants to steer him away from the hokey, cover-of-the-cereal-box deals so often thrown at medalists, and would prefer to focus on categories like fashion, fragrance, and luxury. They’re also trying to take him beyond the gay-friendly brands one would expect to latch on to him in a heartbeat. There have been rumblings about a partnership with swimwear-underwear company AussieBum, but no official announcement has been made. And even if it does happen, Mitcham seems to know that while it certainly would excite his gay fans, the idea of paying a man who made a name for himself by jumping around in a teeny-tiny swimsuit to pose in, well, teeny-tiny swimsuits is not the most novel idea on the planet. “My idea for sponsorship is to do something that isn’t mainstream,” he says, carefully choosing his words. “There are very typical brands that Olympic swimmers go for. I want to do things differently.”
He’ll probably get his way, eventually. If Mitcham has proven anything over the past year, it’s that a fiercely individualistic, highly motivated, out gay athlete can put himself in the middle of the sports world’s most intense pressure cooker and confound all expectations, even his own. “Sports is not an easy thing,” he says. “And if negative things come because of your sexuality…it’s not something that an athlete [should have] to deal with. My hope for gay athletes is that their sexuality is not an issue, that they don’t have to deal with adversity or controversy. I came out because somebody asked me a question and I’m comfortable with who I am.” He seems hesitant about giving himself credit. “Look,” he adds, “one person can only do so much. I was just being who I was. If I can help with gay rights, I’ll do it. But I don’t think I can change the world.” Given that he’s already accomplished something that nobody in the world thought anybody in the world could do, it’s fair to say he already has.