L is for Louganis

Greg Louganis in 1980s Olympic form. Photo by Sadayuki Mikami.

Among the list of legendary American Olympians, the greatest profile in courage for me is Greg Louganis. Greatest diver of all time? If you factor in a troubled childhood, surviving past the boycott, breaking world records, fending off outstanding younger challengers, winning with a concussion, oh, and living with HIV throughout much of it… plus the five medals? No contest.

Scared of So Darn Many Things

Louganis has one of those histories so full of adversity that it’s amazing he ever stepped on to a diving board. Yet everything seemed only to contribute to success. His teenage birthparents gave him up for adoption to loving but stern birthparents. He stuttered. He had terrible asthma and seemed to be allergic to everything. School was a nightmare; along with his halting speech, the dark skin inherited from his Samoan father caused the kids to call him all sorts of names. “I got beat up at the bus stop a lot.” He started smoking and drinking before middle school. As his body matured, his knees didn’t grow properly and developed a gap that doctors thought might alter his walk.

But, as the saying goes, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Because of the asthma, his parents entered him in sports early to develop his lungs, in gymnastics and dance at 18 months. He was good at it, completing solo routines by age three. Afraid of speaking in public, Louganis poured his energy into physical pursuits. When his parents bought a trampoline, then moved to a house with a backyard pool, Louganis started trampolining on the diving board. Terrified Mom decided then that a coach would be a good idea for the eight-year-old. The gap in his legs that had developed as a “deformity” enabled him to see through his knees, even in a tuck, which turned out to be an advantage.

Yet the kid that Coach Ron O’Brien first saw didn’t enjoy diving so much as being driven to it. “He wasn’t a real happy kid. He was always a brave, strong diver, but he was a scared kid. Scared of so darn many things.” The first time trying one difficult dive on the 10m platform, Louganis froze in place. Coach told him he would stay up there until he did it, and eventually Louganis did. He was deathly afraid of snakes, so he got a boa constrictor to cure the fear. That was always Louganis’ solution: look the fear straight in the eye until you stare it down. By 17, that scared kid had turned into a diving warrior.

The Karmic Four-Year-Cycle of the Olympics

At the 1976 Games, Italian Klaus Dibiasi was looking to achieve a threepeat off the 10m platform. Many divers had managed to win back-to-back golds, but none had ever managed three in a row, and only Dibiasi had hung on to compete in four Games. Dibiasi himself had a taken a silver in Tokyo 1964 at age 17, coming in first in the preliminaries, but edged out by American Bob Webster in the finals. Here in Montreal, Dibiasi was now almost 30, at the end of his career, facing a rash of up-and-comers, the inexperienced, the flexible, the no-pressure-to-win teenagers like Louganis.

Such is the underlying nature of the Olympics with its special four-year interval, which I’ve written about before. That four-year interval continuously drives competitive tension. The rookie is loose, goofy, “just happy to be there,” free of expectations and the history of injury or might-have-beens. Rookies win because they don’t know any better; they lose because of misjudgment or nerves. The veterans know how to handle the pressure, but they know time is not on their side. Veterans know how long four years is.

Klaus Dibiasi edges out Louganis in the 1976 Montreal Games. Photo from Getty Images.

Louganis placed first in the preliminary round of the 10m platform, a handful of points above the much older, wily, last-chance-to-win Dibiasi. The teenager had competed on the springboard, but a toothache had thrown him off, and he finished out of the medals. According to The Guardian, Louganis refused pain meds during the ensuing dental visit because he didn’t want to fail his drug test. The finals for the platform diving were a barn-burner, with the two laying out dive after dive with increasing difficulty and higher scores. But Dibiasi passes Louganis in the last two dives, executing his best dive, the front 3.5 somersault, just when he needs it most. Louganis finishes a close second.

Outlasting the Teenagers

By 1979, Louganis was in peak form, winning internationally and a favorite for the gold in 1980. What he had worked for since age eight seemed about to come to fruition, until March 1980, when the U.S. announced the decision to boycott Moscow. It was the end of the young diver’s hopes, along with dozens of other athletes. But as always with Louganis, this would not close the book on his career. It only seemed to drive him harder.

Louganis with documentarian Bud Greenspan in Los Angeles 1984. Photo from imdb.

In Los Angeles 1984, the Olympics near his back yard, Louganis wins both the platform and springboard competitions. On the springboard, he finishes nearly 90 points above second place, the talented Tan Liangde from China. On the platform, he becomes the first man to break 700 points. As he steps to the edge, the TV commentator calls 700 “the Mt. Everest” of the sport and explains that Louganis must execute the toughest dive, the 307C, to earn the points. Because Louganis has already overcome adversity so much that he has–effectively at this point in his career–no competition, the 700 point barrier has become a new mountain that he must climb.

Just a year earlier, at the World Games in Edmonton, Louganis is on the ladder climbing to the platform as Soviet diver Sergei Chalibashvili is about to complete the 307C. The three-and-a-half reverse somersault still is considered the most difficult dive; the diver must jump forward, but launch backwards to start the tumbles. Louganis typically didn’t watch other divers in order to keep his focus, so he does not see Chalibashvili hit the concrete platform, although he feels the platform shake and hears screaming. Chalibashvili cracks his skull and never recovers. Neverthless, the 307C stays in Louganis’ repertoire. In Los Angeles, he performs it, he climbs Mt. Everest, and he wins his gold medals.

Louganis himself hits his head at Seoul in 1988. Photo by Mega.

Let’s Try Winning with a Concussion

By 1988, Louganis is still competing, still driven to win, even though he has achieved the Olympic medals that were the focus of his diving career. He has said that if he had won in Moscow, he might have retired. His scores have continued higher at the intervening Pan American and World Games and he comes to Seoul already covered in accolades.

First up on the path to a possible repeat of double gold is the 3m springboard preliminaries. But as Louganis is cruising through this early round, on his ninth dive, a reverse two-and-a-half somersault in pike position, he whacks his head on the edge of the board. For the competition, it turns out the large early lead will be enough to take him into the finals. His first thought when he hears the “clank” is also embarrassment; he is the stuttering kid, unable to read in front of the class once more.

But he ends up with a concussion, bleeding into the water, and needing stitches from the team doctor. When he finally emerges from the dressing room, his next preliminary dive scores the highest of any diver for any dive in the qualifiers. Although he is nervous in the finals, especially repeating the dive of disaster from the previous day, he executes well and goes on to win–again over China’s Tan Liangde.

Breaking the Surface

What was known at the time to only a handful of people was that in early 1988, a few months before the Olympics, Louganis had tested positive for HIV. He was gay and had been in a romantic but abusive relationship with his business manager, who eventually died of AIDS. In the 1980s, the stigma attached to HIV/AIDS was massive. (When Magic Johnson announced he was HIV-positive, there was discussion about booting him off the 1992 Olympic Dream Team due to irrational fears.) In 1988, AIDS was treated as a death sentence that you could catch from touching someone, even though that was known to be false. As was explained at the time: “If the virus just touches the skin, it is unheard of for it to cause infection: the skin has no receptors to bind HIV.” That HIV expert epidemiologist? Our best friend of 2020, Dr. Anthony Fauci.

But, back in 1988, Louganis and coach were concerned about the blood in the water (although the chlorine would have killed the virus). He didn’t know if he should tell the doctor who stitched his wound without gloves. He didn’t until years later; the doctor was unharmed. That decision might have been wrong, but the clock was ticking, and Louganis had to choose quickly. While the world wondered if Louganis was seriously injured from the smack on the head, Louganis wondered if the reality of his status as an HIV-positive gay man was about to drum him out of the Olympics and into public censure. He and O’Brien made the decision to keep competing. The result was a gold medal, earned the hard way.

He Needed His Best Dive

Although Louganis won the springboard relatively easily, considering the injury, the 1988 Olympic platform competition was a different story. As often goes in the Games, the contest was a curious shadow of the one twelve years before. This time, the old man, 28-year-old Louganis, was chased by a 14-year-old Chinese phenom, Xiong Ni.

Louganis led in the preliminaries, with Xiong close on his heels. As they closed in on the finals, Xiong’s executions were clean and perfect, mirror images of the older athlete. Before the final dive, Xiong was ahead by three points, and his final dive was strong. Louganis would need a high-scoring dive, his best dive, to beat the teenager. Just as Dibiasi had needed, three Games earlier. What dive did he choose? The only one which would score enough points: the Mt. Everest of diving, the 307C.

Louganis taking his fourth gold medal, edging out talented Xiong Ni in 1988. Photo by Getty.

Aftermath

In 1993, Louganis had been feeling poorly and, after living with the threat of AIDS for five years, thought he was starting towards the end. His 33rd birthday was to be his “Final” party. Or so he thought. AIDS would never be able to take him so easily, and it still hasn’t, as he has now passed thirty years being HIV positive.

Louganis today, looking like Iron Man’s brother. Photo by J. Chong.

Louganis officially and formally confirmed the rumors in 1995 by announcing he was HIV positive and gay on Oprah’s talk show. His biography, Breaking the Surface, stayed on the bestseller list for months. He turned to coaching diving and, of all things, dog agility competitions with his dogs, Dr. Schivago; Captain Woof Blitzer; Nipper, Dobby, and Gryff.

In 2016, ESPN asked a handful of athletes to be photographed nude at their sport. Though Louganis hadn’t stepped on a diving board for over a decade, he agreed. He has had to carefully monitor his health and stay in good shape with diet and exercise, to manage his HIV. That explains the 60-year-old body. It doesn’t explain how he can perform dives that he hasn’t tried in 25 years with the same level of precision and power.

Louganis diving for the ESPN 2016 issue. Photo by ESPN.

Louganis not only set records, not only won medals, but competed with grace, skill, and courage that no one will ever touch. Even beyond that, his example brought out the best in those around him. Klaus Dibiasi is the only person to ever repeat three gold medals in diving. Tan Liangde is the only one to win three silvers in a row. Xiong Ni, the teenager that Louganis barely edged in 1988, went on to win four more medals, two back-to-back golds in 1996 and 2000.

Writer Lawrie Mifflin, of the New York Times, wrote in August 1984:

Louganis, who also won the 3-meter springboard gold medal Wednesday, is so superior to everyone else in his sport that he not only makes every dive look beautiful, but he makes the most frightening dives look almost effortless.

Lawrie Mifflin, “A Portrait of Power and Grace”

It could be said that Louganis as a whole, because of his ability to rise to the challenges he has faced, is so superior that he not only makes life look beautiful but makes overcoming the most difficult adversity look almost effortless.

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