“I was really lucky to grow up in an Olympic city, Calgary, so I had the legacy of the 1988 Winter Games in my backyard,” he explains. “When I was little, I went to learn to ski and skate at Canada Olympic Park with my dad and my sister. And I got to try out a whole load of other Olympic sports that I wouldn’t otherwise have had the chance to do.”
Leap of faith
Among those sports was ski jumping, which, for all Canada’s winter sporting pedigree, has tended to be viewed as a fringe pursuit.
“Ski jumping is normally off the radar in Canada,” he says. “But as I was skiing every day at Canada Olympic Park, I got to see the ski jump towers looming over me and I remember saying to my dad that I wanted to give it a try. He was sceptical at first. But eventually he let me have a shot. You know right away when you are going to be a ski jumper because you’re ready to go right onto the biggest jump. It appealed to me because it was something truly different, and a way to set myself apart.”
Taking up the sport at the age of eight, it provided him, quite literally, with a springboard to dream big.
“At school I was never regarded as a very talented athlete: I hardly played soccer or football. I was not a coordinated kid by any stretch of the imagination. For the most part, sport was about having fun, trying something different and making friends. I do remember I really liked the idea of the Olympics and somehow from an early age I believed I could get there one day. Even when I was in grade 3 or 4 I was telling my friends that I was going to be at the Olympics one day. I remember my friend Mady making a sign saying ‘Fly Eric fly’. So as unlikely as it seemed, from an early age the Olympics gave me an opportunity to dream.”
Fast forward a decade, and Mitchell’s dream became a reality, when he made it onto the Canadian team for Vancouver 2010 at the tender age of 17.
“I was the second youngest ski jumper and youngest Canadian male athlete at the Games. Getting there wasn’t easy by any stretch. There were a series of hoops and hurdles to jump through. In fact, I only found out I had qualified in December 2009, and it was down to the wire. In the very last possible qualifying event in Estonia, I had to place in the top 30 to earn a single ranking point to put me in the top 70 in the world. I had never placed in the top 50 prior to that. But on that day I felt there was nothing more I could have done.
From an early age the Olympics gave me an opportunity to dreamEric Mitchell
“The trip itself was filled with calamities: lost baggage, no skis, bad weather... I remember feeling very free, that there was nothing more I could have done to get there. That was a real lesson for me. Sometimes when you really need it you get the power that you need. I beat the person who finished 31st by half a metre – a very small margin in ski jumping. It was down to the wire, but it all worked out for me.”
“I was part of a team that was focused on gold medals; but for me there was no pressure, just a chance to find out what the Olympics were all about. The real moment it hit me I was at the Olympics was when I walked into the Opening Ceremony to hear 50,000 screaming Canadians; that’s when I realised the whole world was watching us and that the Olympic Games were not just about hurling myself off a ski jump, it was about the whole world coming together to celebrate. I had spent all my career focusing on me: getting faster, jumping higher – that in itself is a selfish endeavour in many ways.”
“When you’re part of the Olympics, it’s one of the coolest things imaginable: you feel like you are part of a global community from the beginning. You compete together and socialise together. It’s a different vibe from any other sporting event; and as a result I’ve still got a bunch of friends from around the world.”
Vancouver was Mitchell’s first and last taste of the Olympic Games as a competitor, but he has remained very much involved in the Olympic Movement ever since, in a variety of capacities. At Sochi 2014 he was recruited to help test the ski jump facilities – an experience he says was a lot of fun… but his proudest moment to date came two years later in Lillehammer at the 2016 Winter Youth Olympic Games, where he served as a Young Ambassador with the Canadian team, working as a mentor and role model.
“I felt very lucky to be in that role, working as an instrument for change. It was my first chance to give back to young athletes who were going through a lot of the same things I had done. I was able to share my own experiences and to be true to myself.”
Walking the walk
For Mitchell, the concept of being true to himself meant also being open about being gay, something which required no little courage in a world where, traditionally, most gay athletes have felt unable to do so without harming their careers.
“I used to feel there were two ways for me to walk: I could walk the way of focusing on Olympic pursuits or I could walk the path of a gay man. I felt the two could not happen together. But then I started to realise there was a growing community of LBGTQ athletes who were starting to find a voice, not least via the Canadian NOC and its #OneTeam initiative. For me the athlete voice is very powerful and needs to be purposed in a way that helps deliver change. This was something that was very close to my heart: learning to be true to yourself.”
“[Promoting acceptance of LBGTQ athletes] is not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do in terms of maximising the potential for sporting success.”
“In so many ways sport is a magnifying glass to society. At Sochi there was a spotlight placed on LBGTQ athletes because of the climate in Russia. I think that actually helped many countries open up to the fact that this was an issue.”
“The OneTeam campaign was one of the responses to that. In Canada we had 15 ambassadors who were part of the LBGT community; four years on we have 50 which in itself shows me that incredible strides have been made. More and more NOCs are tackling the issues of homophobia and transphobia, and we have events like the YOG providing a ‘Learn and Share’ platform and that can only be a good sign.
“And trust me, even over the last four years, the reception I get shows people are far more aware than they were four years and eight years ago. At the 2016 Winter YOG in Lillehammer, one of my favourite moments was when I was sitting at a table in the cafeteria with some other folk and one of the female Croatian ambassadors came up: someone said to me: ‘You should get her number’. I replied that I didn’t think my boyfriend would be too happy about that. Nobody batted an eyelid. So I do feel that sport is changing in this regard and is on a positive path.”
Next stop Buenos Aires
Later this year, Mitchell will once again be donning his mentor’s cap as he travels to the Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires.
“I’ll be working in the athlete education zone, helping facilitate resources for young athletes. I see it as an incredible opportunity to influence young athletes at the start of their journey, as these future champions figure out that their role as athletes is not just about focusing on themselves. The YOG is a chance for them to understand the real values of Olympism: excellence, friendship and respect; and to work out what that means for them and how they have a really powerful voice. This is something I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
Before that however, there is the small matter of Olympic Day on 23 June. “That has always been very big in Canada and there will be events taking place from coast to coast, from Vancouver to Newfoundland. Kids across the country will have the chance to try out a bunch of different Olympic sports.
“I’ll be part of that, doing presentations on ski jumping. Olympic Day is a chance to remember that it’s not just athletes who can live by the values of Olympism. We can all try to be better, and be better friends, and celebrate our differences. Sport is the great unifier: it doesn’t matter where you come from, what language you speak, how you identify or who you choose to love; it’s all about our shared love of sport.”
As 2018 marks the 70th anniversary of Olympic Day, this year the International Olympic Committee is celebrating through United By, which recognises the people who make sport happen every day for themselves, their families, friends and communities.