A Backward
Three–Somersault Tuck (With a Twist)

A Backward
            Three–Somersault Tuck (With a Twist)

When Matthew
Mitcham arrived at the Sydney Aquatic Centre on a cold June
day wrapped in a heavy coat and jeans (it’s winter
Down Under), it didn’t seem possible that
he’d strip down to a pair of Speedos and willingly
dive into water again and again. The Olympic Games were two
months away, and the 20-year-old diver with a pierced
tongue was (and still is) dead-set on beating his
rivals and winning the gold.

He did just that
May 11 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., at the AT&T USA
Diving Grand Prix, one of the major annual meets put on by
FINA, the international governing body for swimming,
diving, and water polo. There, at an outdoor pool in
windy conditions, Mitcham won the 10-meter platform,
his specialty, defeating both 2004 Olympic gold medalist Hu
Jia of China and fellow Australian and 2004 silver
medalist Matthew Helm. Mitcham, currently ranked third
in the world, also beat world number 1 Sascha Klein of
Germany.

Diving is a
mercurial sport in which one small move can mean the
difference between a perfect 10 and a belly flop -- success
depends almost as much on chance as it does skill. But
in Beijing, if Mitcham nails his dives -- they include
a forward 3½-somersault pike and an incredibly
difficult backward three-somersault tuck performed from an
arm stand -- he could very well see the Australian
flag raised above him. (He also competes in the
three-meter springboard event, but less successfully:
He didn’t finish in the top six in Fort Lauderdale,
and his world ranking is 10.)

Should he win,
Mitcham will join the very small club of openly gay
Olympic gold medalists.

But as
significant as that moment would be for gay athletes
everywhere, Mitcham has only one goal in mind.
“I just want to be known as the Australian
diver who did really well at the Olympics,” he says.
“It’s everybody else who thinks
it’s special when homosexuality and elite sport
go together.”

Aquatic athletes
are as revered in Australia as NFL stars are in the
United States, so the news that Mitcham is gay made
headlines throughout his home country. It was The
Sydney Morning Herald
that broke the story; in
the course of profiling the diver as part of its
Olympics coverage, a reporter from the paper asked Mitcham
whom he lived with.

“I
hadn’t planned to do it at all,” Mitcham says
today. “It was just a question” -- which
he answered by saying he lived with his partner of two
years, Lachlan -- “and it went from there.”

The subsequent
attention turned out to be a bit of a distraction for
Mitcham, who was hunkered down for pre-Olympic training when
the story ran in The Herald May 24. He received
so many media requests that his coach had to set aside
a morning for interviews and photo shoots a couple
weeks later. But by 2 p.m. Mitcham had to be back on
the diving platform. It was the only access the press has
had to the diver since he came out because, as he
explains, he needs to concentrate on training and
“not worry about what I’m going to
say.”

Matthew Mitcham 2 x 390 (Getty) | Advocate.com

One might think
that the fuss would have bothered his fellow divers, but
they’re nonchalant about his sexual orientation.
“They don’t seem to mind that I’m
a big homo,” says Mitcham, who trains six hours a day
at the New South Wales Institute of Sport, a facility
for elite athletes in 31 sports at Sydney’s
Olympic Park. “I make jokes about it all the time. I
haven’t made an issue of it, so they just reciprocate
that attitude.” Plus, he says, because of its
artistry and grace, diving is “such an easy
sport to be out in -- much easier than football, where you
have to be rugged and strong and masculine.”

Indeed, he says,
some of his teammates at the institute are gay -- as are
some of his competitors at the international level.
“There are others, but I’m the first to
come to the media and say, ‘Hello, I’m
gay!’ I’m not scared.”

Not that there
aren’t some who are bothered by his openness, such as
the blog commenter who came to Mitcham’s
attention when he wrote that the diver couldn’t
win a medal now that he’s come out. Such absurd
thinking doesn’t surprise him -- “Elite
sport is such a macho thing” -- but it also
doesn’t faze him. After all, there’ve been
openly gay Olympians before, and some have even won
medals -- such as Dutch swimmer Johan Kenkhuis, who
took home a silver as part of the 100-meter freestyle relay
in 2004.

Mitcham almost
lost his chance at a medal before he even had a shot at
one: He quit the sport after burning out two years ago. A
trampolinist as a child, he started diving at 11,
after he was spotted by a coach as he was playing on a
board in the Brisbane suburbs where he grew up. By the
time he was 16, the rigors of training had made his body a
wreck: He had a stress fracture on his lower back and
13 ganglion cysts -- a kind of joint and tendon
swelling—in his right and left wrists. By his senior
year of high school those health issues -- combined with a
heavy academic load, a hectic competition schedule,
and daily 5 a.m. workouts -- overwhelmed him.

“I had too
much on my plate,” he says. “Going to the
Olympics was always a dream of mine, even winning a
medal, but at the time my personal needs far
outweighed the desire.”

So he took six
months off, catching up with friends, hitting the bars,
doing everything he couldn’t do as an aspiring
Olympian. He also met Lachlan (about whom he’s
tight-lipped for the sake of his privacy). But it
didn’t take long before his desire to compete
returned, so at the beginning of 2007 the couple moved
to Sydney and Mitcham resumed his diving training,
this time at the renowned institute.

Matthew Mitcham 3 x 390 (Getty) | Advocate.com

Today, Mitcham
credits that break with getting him as far as he’s
come: “I’m glad I took the time out,
because if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be in this
position now. I recovered physically, emotionally, and
mentally—and I had a lot of fun.” But
he’s been so focused on Beijing since then that he
hasn’t been out with friends for more than a year and
a half. And now that he’s won his ticket to
China, he’ll be cheered poolside by Lachlan,
courtesy of a $5,000 travel grant from Johnson &
Johnson’s Athlete Family Support Program (no,
there wasn’t an outcry, as you might expect in
the States). His mom may be there too, thanks to some Sydney
gay men and lesbians who offered to cover her
expenses. “I’m very proud to be part of
the gay community,” he says.

As it is for any
gay diver, the Greg Louganis comparison looms large. But
Mitcham doesn’t exactly spend much time thinking
about his predecessor, one of diving’s great
champions with back-to-back double gold medals at the
1984 and 1988 Olympics. “We’re both gay
divers,” he says, but “that’s
about the only similarity -- two things we share out of
thousands of millions of qualities and character
traits.”

Louganis
doesn’t make too much of their similarities either:
“He’s a great kid and a great athlete.
It shows we’ve come a long way,” he says.
“There are more positive images out there for young
gay kids, so it’s very important.” But
does he see himself in Mitcham? And could those traits
help him win the gold? “I leave that to you all,
because you’re always wanting to make
comparisons and judge.”

Arguably, Mitcham
is more famous heading into his first Olympics than
Louganis was back in ’84 -- coming out, intentional
or not, has been a great career move. “There
were maybe a dozen Americans who had heard of Matthew
Mitcham before,” says Cyd Zeigler Jr. of
Outsports.com. “I bet you can’t name an
American diver, and yet people know who he is -- even
though he’s Australian.” And people are
definitely pulling for him, Zeigler adds: “Just
like Jesse Owens was a great hope for black athletes,
Mitcham is for gay athletes.”

But guess what?
Divers don’t reach their peak until their mid 20s,
when their bodies are fully mature and they’re
strong both physically and mentally. So no matter how
he does in Beijing, chances are good that Mitcham will
compete again in London in 2012, when he’ll be only
24. He may even try for 2016. “Twenty-eight is
going to be hard,” he says, “but if
I’m still in it, and I’m good enough to make
the team, then that would be cool.” He’s
likely at only the beginning of a glorious career.

Back at the pool,
with the interview over, Mitcham is comparing thigh
muscles with a much bulkier teammate, then asking another if
the spray-on tan missed a spot on his back. Relaxed,
smiling, occasionally chirpy, he’s quite
charming in person -- and it’s clear that he knows
it.

But once practice
begins, his competition face comes on, all
determination and commitment. The gay kid barely out of his
teens breaks out from time to time, flashing a toothy
grin when he catches someone’s eye or sticking
his tongue -- and his tongue piercing -- out on request.
But Mitcham is an elite athlete with a job to do now. If he
wants to win the gold, he has to work hard.

“The
passion is diving, but the goal is winning,” he says.
“It’s not mine to lose, but hopefully
it’s mine to win.”

Tags: World, World

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