Once 'Small' and 'Skinny,' Aussie Comes Up Big at USA Diving Grand Prix

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 12, 2008

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla., May 11 -- This man, at the top of a diving medal podium? An Australian free spirit who just two years ago up and quit -- for a year -- because he was sick of the sport? A former trampoline artist with a silver piercing in the middle of his tongue? A self-described non-athletic kid who grew up "uncoordinated, small, skinny, lanky [and] wobbly-kneed?"

Meet Matthew Mitcham, 20, who crushed the competition to win the gold medal in Sunday's men's platform final on a big day for Australia at the USA Diving Grand Prix. Mitcham topped his more acclaimed countryman Matthew Helm, the reigning Olympic silver medalist, and Germany's Sascha Klein, the winner of the prestigious 2008 World Cup, as well as a pair of Americans with medal hopes.

On his fourth of six dives, Mitcham slid seamlessly into the water and then jumped wildly out of it upon spotting his marks from the judges: Four 10s and two 9.5s for the reverse 3½ tuck -- easily the best scores of this three-day competition, the fifth stop of the international diving series that previews the Aug. 8-24 Summer Games in Beijing.

"At the moment I'm so excited I can't even remember what dive it was," Mitcham said more than 20 minutes after the conclusion of the event. "The crowd was just going absolutely bananas. . . . I looked at the board and the first scores I saw were 10s, so I just leapt into the air."

Mitcham finished with 534.45 points at this beachside venue at the International Swimming Hall of Fame complex, easily surpassing Helms (502.70) and Klein (467.90). Americans David Boudia (465.20) and Thomas Finchum (463.35) finished fourth and fifth, respectively.

Later, Boudia and Finchum claimed a silver medal in the synchro platform event, finishing with 437.52 points behind Helm and Aussie teammate Robert Newberry (443.04). The Chinese team of Yang Liguang and Hu Jia finished third (422.88).

"We were hoping to get medals individually," Finchum said. "We were shut out, so it just gave us that extra push" in the synchro event.

Boudia and Finchum's medal gave the United States five overall (four silver and one bronze) for the meet. Australia also earned five medals -- two gold, two silver and two bronze. China, which did not send its best team to this meet, still won the medal table. The Chinese left with three gold, two silver and two bronze medals.

In the day's other final, Russian Yulia Pakhalina won the women's three-meter springboard with 357.90, ahead of China's He Zi (357.75) and Italy's Tania Cagnotto (320.50).

The trio of medals from Australia on Sunday hinted that the traditional swimming power continues to refine the diving acumen it showed at the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, when Aussie divers claimed six medals. Before winning a pair of Olympic bronze medals in 2000, Australia had won just one, a gold in at the 1924 Summer Games.

Mitcham, who will compete in his first Olympics this summer, switched from trampoline to diving eight years ago after being discovered by an Aussie coach while clowning around on a diving board at a local swim club. Overcoming the teenage rebellion that led to the tongue piercing at age 14, he showed a knack for the new sport and got serious fast. He adopted Helm as his idol and the two trained together for a while.

But both tired of the long days and uncertain rewards almost simultaneously, leaving the diving program two years ago with, Helm said, "no intention of returning." Mitcham had enough of hard-nosed coaches brought in from China to revive the Australian program; when he eventually came back, he joined Mexican coach Chava Sobrino and thrived under his more individual style. Helm, 27, was simply tired after years of diving; a year away revived his passion.

But Helm ran into a number of problems when he returned: two broken ankles, two broken thumbs and vertigo. It's been only a few weeks, he said, since he regained his form.

Mitcham, meantime, said he's hitting a stride he's never hit before. Earlier this year, he was fifth in the platform event at the World Cup in Beijing. He nearly failed to advance out of the preliminary round here, he said, because of the windy conditions. Twice he nearly fell into the water while attempting to get into a handstand starting position.

"It's all coming together," Mitcham said. "I would consider [this event] to be one of the highest caliber grand prix in the world. To win a gold here . . . all of the divers are of such a high standard."

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