Commonwealth Games javelin gold medallist Kathryn Mitchell’s toughest battle has been the inner turmoil she experienced early in her career. Mitchell is ready to speak publicly about that dark place, the suicidal thoughts. Mitchell does so, not now she has won gold, but because she feels ready to open doors and give voice to what is largely a silent issue.
THERE was a dark place, far from the from the glittery and shiny gold of the Commonwealth Games, Kathryn Mitchell chose to revisit. Mitchell did so, not wanting to be lured back into the darkness, but to learn how far she has flown.
What Mitchell read in old diaries was powerful and shocked her. Mitchell knew there would be the suicidal thoughts but the extent to which she had detailed that dark place was overwhelming. For so long, the thoughts had been enclosed in her diaries and packed away in boxes.
Mitchell’s perseverance in struggles with injury and her changed mindset in approach to her game were well-document and praised leading into last month’s Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. Then Mitchell won javelin gold and tales of her journey, the emotion in her final throw – knowing she was a gold medallist – captured the attention of the nation.
But this is the first time Mitchell has publicly shared her intensely private battles, having shared a little insight on her social media page.
“In my (diary) writing, it got a lot worse. That’s not a place I hang out anymore,” Mitchell said. “I knew it would probably be surprising for people to hear but maybe as much as people are surprised, many can relate and perhaps find it inspiring. We see people in the public eye and we know mental health is a big issue but don’t always realise the struggles behind it. Sometimes the individual stories are most powerful.
“I want people to know good things can still happen.”
“Are you an introvert” was the first question Victorian Institute of Sport psychologist Mark Spargo asked of Mitchell when they first teamed up in August. Spargo is the man who Mitchell credits for guiding her rejuvenated game last summer.
That one question was the key to start unlocking years of accumulated stress. This was years after the dark place, but for Mitchell, it was an absolute game changer.
Spargo made his primary concern Kathryn Mitchell, her well-being, rather than mental strategies for how to qualify for the Gold Coast or to improve her distance.
He slowed everything down and, in turn, helped to her to understand and heal some of the scars from that dark place.
Mitchell feels the darkness started to encroach when she left home, aged 17, moving from Casterton to Ballarat to further her athletics in sprinting, long jump and her passion, javelin. She transferred to Ballarat High School for year 12.
A shy teenager, Mitchell was incredibly homesick. Never comfortable on state team trips, Mitchell found it hard to make friends and felt incredibly lonely. Food was a comfort but, as an athlete, Mitchell had thought she could regain control in what became a five-year struggle with bulimia.
Mitchell felt stuck, committed to follow through on the purpose for leaving home. Back in Casterton, Mitchell’s family wanted her home. They wanted their happy Kathryn back.
“There was a lot of self-hatred and loathing in those writings but reading it back, it almost feels like it’s not me,” Mitchell said. “I always found it hard to meet new people.
I felt like the biggest loser around. I’d see all the other athletes and them seemed to have it all together and felt like I didn’t. You always compare.
Then Mitchell got word German Uwe Hohn – the only man to throw the javelin more than 100 metres – was coming to work in Australia. Hohn was to coach young Australian thrower Jarrod Bannister with the idea to build up an Australian national throwing centre ahead of the 2012 London Olympics.
Working with Hohn, Mitchell could straightaway see and feel technical improvement in her game.
Only, when Athletics Australia learned of Mitchell’s romantic relationship with Hohn, his contract was terminated and she had to resign her Australian Institute of Sport scholarship in a perceived conflict on interest. They were left stranded in Europe at the time, not long out from the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games where she later finished fifth.
Something had changed in Mitchell. Under Hohn’s guidance, her sharpened technique and adjustments sparked a new belief.
Hohn, who is still her partner, got a coaching job in China and Mitchell returned to Casterton. Her training was raw, almost Rocky-style, running through the woods and town, working out on the farm.
The period hard and stressful but a fresh start. In a complete re-set, Mitchell did everything different. If her old national coach had told her to run warm-up laps in one direction, Mitchell would run the opposite.
London 2012 was the time frame Mitchell had set herself and kept to herself. She had to qualify for the Olympics or be done with sport. Mitchell finished ninth in the Games and kept pushing forward.
A strong, consistent build-up to the 2016 Rio Olympics had Mitchell feeling like a medal was within her grasp and yet, a sixth placing left her with a strange, hollow feeling.
“I didn’t think my identity was caught up in sport, but once you go down a little deeper I could see it was. Results and outcomes were woven into who I am,” Mitchell said.
“You can lose yourself in sport sometimes.
There is a blurry line between conditional recognition between who you are as a person as opposed to who you are as a person with results.
“When I struggled as a junior was when I felt my darkest. When you win, more people talk to you and more people talk about you. It still happens.”
This year for Mitchell has been about releasing the brakes. Mitchell has been cutting the ties of perceived judgement and expectations that had been weighing her down.
This has been a difficult process but liberating. It has reminded Mitchell how much she loves the creativity and freedom in letting a javelin fly. Mitchell still aims for results – distance is the measure of javelin – but questioning how much she needs the results for a measure of success as a person, particularly moving into life after sport.
Ironically, in releasing the brakes, Mitchell staked two Australian records on her way to a gold medal in a 68.92m Commonwealth and Australian record on her first attempt on the Gold Coast.
“I don’t think much could top that moment,” Mitchell said. “Timing was perfect: the season I’d had; it was a home Games; the changes I’d made; was family was there; (long-time Ballarat High coach) Lindsay Burgoyne was there and he’d never seen me thrown in a major meet; and it was the first personal best Uwe had seen me throw.”
There is still so much in her game Mitchell is excited about.
Now is the time to recover and rebuild as Mitchell aims for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. No longer driven by a feeling she has to improve, Mitchell is fueled to discover where he game could take her.
“You need to learn more about yourself,” Mitchell said.
“You need the right people in your corner, and they can take awhile to find.
“You need the right people to guide you, but ultimately, it comes back to what you can do.”
- Lifeline 13 11 14; Butterfly Foundation for Eating Disorders 1800 334 673.