Australia's most charismatic track star is much more than an athlete
Morgan Mitchell doesn’t fit into the convenient and traditional mould of one of Australia’s most glamorous athletes, but she's arguably everything we need in a modern role model - at times vulnerable, others outspoken, and as courageous as they come, Mitchell is rich in self-awareness and humility.
You won’t catch her spruiking protein powder on Instagram (“My friends would call me out way too quick for that! I don’t want to be a walking ad for yoghurt!”), nor will you catch her complaining about her schedule (“I should tell more people that I work and study full time. You don’t make a huge living in this sport”).
Mitchell is in many ways as average as you and I; the exception of course comes in her incredible ability as an athlete.
An Olympian in 2016 at the age of 21, Mitchell made her name as a 400m runner, and has lived much of the 3 years since Rio in the spotlight - frequently used for appearances and media moments, but also the subject of intense scrutiny anytime she didn’t run well.
Like most young stars, Mitchell has faced her share of struggles, but midway through 2019 she seems content, happy, and sure of where she’s headed. It probably helps that we’re sitting down to chat just a week after Mitchell ran the 800m in 2:00.06 in London to hit the qualifying standard for the World Championships in Doha.
“I know where I’m going and I know where I’m at. Liz is very honest (Liz Mathews, her coach). If you’re running poorly, she’ll let you know, and if you’re running well she’ll let you know but she’s quite reserved. We’d been training like dogs for so long, and I thought there’s no way I can be training like this and still be stuck at 2:02.
"Standing on the startline in London I felt really relaxed...I was so relaxed that I completely missed the start, I missed it by about a second!. (Ed - check out the replay here). It was a pretty hot pace and I remember thinking it felt OK, it was comfortable. Then afterwards I saw Catriona’s time come up and I was so stoked for her (Catriona Bisset set a new Australian record), and then I saw my 2 flat come up and I was pissed! Oh I was so pissed it’s not even funny. Having the qualifier is one thing, but to miss sub 2 by that much, I was so pissed.
I actually wrote in my diary at the start of the season ‘I don’t care what anyone says, I’m running a 1:59’. So it’s a good achievement, but 1:59.99 would have been the perfect end to my first season.”
Mitchell now sits 7 hundredths of a second away from going under 2 minutes for the 800m. Her 2:00.06 is good enough for 8th all time for an Australian - a tidy achievement for the first season running the event. A lot of outsiders would have seen her switch to the 800m as foolhardy, but after missing the final in Rio, and a string of performances that weren’t up to Mitchell’s own standards in 2017 and 2018, she took control of her future.
“When I made the switch I knew I was either going to quit running or change events, because there’s no way I’m doing the 400. I remember having to tell Athletics Australia, and having to tell adidas and trying not to cry because adidas has always been so good to me...Adidas were amazing, they said they were in it for the long haul...Athletics Australia weren’t as enthusiastic - it’s kind of unfortunate, they knew I was unhappy, it would have been great to have more support. I think they wanted me to just be a relay runner.”
Mitchell is still only 24 years old, and arguably could have fought her way back to another Olympic team in the 400m in Tokyo, but had the courage to make a switch.
This courage is a trait that separates Mitchell from so many others. Our personal and professional networks are filled with people who are treading water but lack the impetus to take positive action - while here was a 23 year old prepared to give up the Olympic dream she had in her grasp in the 400m, in the hopes of achieving something even greater in the 800m.
“When I made the switch I knew I was either going to quit running or change events, because there’s no way I’m doing the 400m."
“I told Liz this is what I wanted and the goal was Tokyo. I didn’t care about World Champs or if I didn’t make the relay in the 4x400. I ran 55 seconds in the 400 at the start of this year, that was the darkest most shit day of my life because I was forced into it - and that solidified that I will never go back to that event until I’m ready for it.
So I decided to trust the person that trusted me, and that was Liz. We were training so well early on, I felt that it was going to work out. It felt right to be a bit more assertive and take control - I think until then I’d been controlled by so many people for so long, and it wasn’t working. It’s been a long year, but to finally get to where I have is so rewarding.”
There is however, a lot more to Mitchell’s life than running. Not unlike other 24 year old’s, she’s got a huge interest in fashion and style and has been featured in VOGUE Australia - twice. “One of my bucket list items is to get a cover for VOGUE Australia...I think I’d have to do something pretty amazing for that to happen.”
Some of the other bucket list items? Hitting Kanye’s Sunday Service (Ed - which if you’re not up to speed, have been getting wild lately), and sharing a birthday party with Japanese fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto (also the designer behind Y-3) and currently incarcerated rapper A$AP Rocky (“Did you see the Betoota Advocate headline - ‘A$AP Rocky being jailed inside IKEA’ - I lost my shit, those guys are so funny!”).
This is another window into the way Mitchell’s mind works - no goal is too lofty.
For now, Mitchell is studying - and perhaps tongue in cheek, regularly asks her 60k Instagram followers if anyone wants to write her assignments for her - for cash.
“I get a lot of people replying to those posts. Like, a lot. That’s not illegal, is it? I’m studying business and fashion marketing, it’s not that hard - I’m just always behind! Anyway, maybe I’m just joking!”
"It felt right to be a bit more assertive and take control - I think until then I’d been controlled by so many people for so long, and it wasn’t working."
Like most top tier Australian runners, Mitchell spends a lot of time out of Australia through the middle of the year, training and racing abroad. You’ll also catch her spending blocks of time in Phoenix with her partner, US 110m hurdler Devon Allen.
“I can tell you one thing that isn’t on my bucket list and that’s skydiving. Devon’s on his own there. I got him a voucher a while ago and he hasn’t used it because I know he’s waiting for me!” At this point, Allen arrives at the cafe we’re at and says hello - the skydiving conversation is quickly and deftly put to bed.
Back to style, and Mitchell showed up at the Müller Games in London (where she ran the 2:00.06) in a one-piece suit from adidas. Anyone who follows Mitchell on social media will know how vocal she was about this race kit at the start of the season.
“I sat down with adidas at the start of 2017 and said bring back black and white, give me a one peice, and make it seamless, that’s all I want! And fast forward to 2019 and here we are. It’s sick.
Anyway, I've got a good group chat between myself, Riley Day, Nana Owusu, and Celeste Mucci, and I remember messaging the girls - London is a big meet, I was a bit nervous about rolling the one piece especially if I run shit! But the girls backed me, they gave me the confidence to wear it. It feels cool wearing it and knowing that I had something to do with it. I love seeing other athletes wear it too.”
As for other big statements, be on the lookout for something wild if Mitchell ever breaks Catriona Bisset’s national record. “I said if I run a 1:58 I’ll get a rose tattoo on my face. I told my mum and she burst into tears, but then I showed her what I meant and she thought it was cool. We’ll see. I’d love to get my stomach done but it doesn't look good in a crop top, it breaks up the tattoo too much.” @AUSOlympicTeam, can we get a tattoo station set up in the village?!
With Mitchell spending so much of her time stateside, I’m curious about her long term plans. It’s easy to imagine a future spent in a warmer climate like Phoenix, versus the harsh realities of Melbourne’s west in winter. There’s also the fact that the training pool is a lot deeper in the US.
“I dont know if I’ll ever move to the US, maybe after Tokyo if I did, but I’ve been talking with Raeyvn (Raevyn Rogers, US 800m runner) and I think I’d go and do blocks in Philadelphia with her group, because they’re running super quick. I feel like hanging off the back of them would make me quick. I’ll train with everyone as long as they don’t have an ego or make a big deal out of things.”
Training under Liz Mathews, Mitchell does most of her home based training in the shadows of 3 time national title winner in the 800m, Luke Mathews. The two can often be seen grinding out reps in Newport, a stone’s throw from the true working class heart of the west.
“Training with Luke is great, I don’t think people realise how hard he works. Because he is always mucking around and a joker, people think he doesn't work hard, but he works his arse off, he’s an animal.
I've always trained with guys. Sometimes girls come in and it becomes too much drama. Nothing is personal with guys. But when you train with girls it becomes a race or people take things personally. You don't win medals for 200m reps, you know? I train hard, but if I’m tired and you overtake me? Cool. I’m not bothered.
In a few years I can see maybe training more with Catriona - we have a lot in common, we have a very similar take on training, how we treat each other, there's no shit, we just want to push each other.
I just don't like people overcomplicating it. Just get to work.”
Again, ‘just get to work’ feels like a window into Mitchell’s approach to life. Set a goal, figure out what needs to be done, do the work. It’s a philosophy that looks like paying massive dividends over the next 12 months and beyond. Don't be surprised when you see the VOGUE cover, or when Mitchell posts grainy Instagram Stories live from Kanye's Sunday Service.
And if you’re wondering - yes, we’ll be there when the face tattoo goes down.