The 26-year-old openly-gay diver upset the odds to win 10 metre platform gold at the Beijing 2008 Olympics with a dive that received four perfect 10 scores, the highest single-dive score at a Games.
But instead of being buoyed by victory, Mitcham suffered a relapse into depression and persistent abdominal injuries, prompting him to slip into drug addiction.
As he prepares to compete in four diving events in Glasgow from Wednesday, hoping to go one better than the four silvers he won four years ago in Delhi, he told Reuters how he battled back from the brink to rediscover the joy of competing.
“After I’d won in Beijing and became number one in the world (in 2010) it was still a very hollow achievement,” Mitcham explained from his training camp in Edinburgh, where the diving takes place at the Royal Commonwealth Pool.
“I had really low self-esteem and valued myself by my diving achievements and not as me as a person. It was really, really unhealthy and was just before I hit my worst bout of depression.
“I was forced to reassess my life and embarked on this epic journey of self-development. Now the will and the determination is still there but I just enjoy life and the whole process a little bit more now.
“Diving isn’t a sport that’s purely technical but it’s a subjective sport and I’ve had feedback from judges that when they can see you enjoying the competition they enjoy watching you more, which encourages them to give you better scores.
“It’s helped me to make up for what I perhaps lack in strength and preparation (because of persistent injury) with my love of performing and diving, that joie de vivre that I never had before. It was just a sterile, technical series of movements before.”
Mitcham is refreshingly open for an athlete and is happy to tackle the issues of mental health, substance abuse and sexuality, often considered taboo subjects among sportsmen.
He explains in his autobiography ‘Twists and Turns’ how he had suffered from depression as a teenager, causing him to quit diving and turn to alcohol and recreational drugs two years before Beijing, aged just 18.
Having dedicated his life solely to the sport, premature retirement meant he was forced to dive in a circus to make a living. Luckily he made a remarkable comeback to competition in time to produce his stunning gold medal performance.
“I was diving into a tank in a bumblebee costume in a circus,” he recalled. “Sometimes I just have to laugh at myself when I look back on the things I’ve done, the things I’ve been through and the things I’ve managed to achieve. It’s been a pretty colourful story.”
He smiles now but Mitcham still wears the scars of his addiction to the methamphetamine ‘crystal meth’, the drug he started using a year before the London 2012 Olympic Games, where he failed to qualify for the final.
“I stopped watching Breaking Bad after two episodes because I found it too triggering,” the diver explained of the hit television show about a chemist that produces the drug.
Having overcome addiction, Mitcham documents his recovery and compelling life story in a cabaret show named after his book.
It seems fitting then that his event is based in Edinburgh, home to the largest arts festival in the world. He explains that he had been in talks to perform his show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, but for now the Games’ diving events will be his only performance in Scotland’s capital this year.
“I love entertaining people, I’ve always been a bit of a performer, diving is just something that is more of a physical performance,” he said.
As the first openly gay man to win an Olympic gold, Mitcham have become a figurehead of equality and gay rights.
He was glad to see organisers incorporate a gay kiss into Glasgow 2014’ opening ceremony and says it was indicative of a competition living up to its ‘Friendly Games’ tag.
“I was over the moon at how seamlessly they incorporated the equality themes into the opening ceremony. It was absolutely wonderful.
“The kiss took everyone by surprise. It took people out of their comfort zone. It was a really brave start to use that platform to normalize equality and same-sex relationships.”
The Australian competes in the 1m springboard, 10m individual and synchronised platform, and synchronised 3m springboard from Wednesday, with England’s Tom Daley, a two-time Commonwealth champion and bronze medallist at London 2012, considered the favourite for both platform golds.
At 26, Mitcham admits this could be his last chance to win a major prize. “Maybe it’s my last competition. I would dive forever if I could but I can’t. I’ve been to the top and I’m not sure I’d ever get there again. If I won gold maybe I’d quit whilst I was ahead.”
(editing by Justin Palmer)