Louganis, Greg(ory) Efthimios

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LOUGANIS, Greg(ory) Efthimios

(b. 29 January 1960 in San Diego, California), one of the all-time dominant divers, admired as much for his aesthetic choreography and graceful execution as for his powerful athleticism, and the first competitor to capture Olympic gold medals in both springboard and platform events.

Louganis was adopted by Peter and Frances (Scott) Louganis when he was a baby. Little was known of his biological parents, except that his father was of Samoan ancestry, his mother was northern European, and both were teenagers when Louganis was born. He grew up in El Cajon, California, a middle-class suburb of San Diego. Louganis's adoptive father was a bookkeeper and later worked as a fishing boat dispatcher; his mother was a homemaker. When Louganis was just a preschooler, he began attending dance classes with his older sister. The instructor taught him to visualize dance routines from start to finish, a skill he later perfected when practicing various diving maneuvers.

Louganis attended public schools, and at an early age he began to suffer from two significant childhood maladies: dyslexia and asthma. To make matters worse, he stuttered badly, and his relatively dark skin made him the victim of racism at school. "I was called 'sissy,' 'nigger,' and 'retard,'" he told Barbara Walters in a televised interview. In his autobiography he wrote of childhood depression and suicidal feelings as a result of internalizing his social isolation. "I played negative messages over and over again in my head. My natural parents didn't want me; my adoptive parents don't love me; I'm retarded; I'm ugly."

However, these problems led him toward therapeutic activities that shaped a successful future. Louganis's mother encouraged him to continue with dance classes, hoping that he might learn poise and self-respect and also, as he told Sports Illustrated, because "Mom didn't want any klutzes." His doctor prescribed gymnastics classes, believing that intense exercise might expand his lung capacity as a preventive measure against asthma attacks. Both activities helped Louganis to sharpen his concentration, learn discipline, develop his imagination, and gain the sense of competence that he was denied at school. At age nine he took a diving class at a public recreation center in nearby La Mesa. Within two years Louganis emerged as an accomplished competitive diver, qualifying for the 1971 Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) Junior Olympics and scoring a perfect "10" in the springboard diving competition.

Sammy Lee, a two-time Olympic diving champion, saw Louganis in that premier national performance and was particularly impressed by the height that the young diver achieved off the springboard. "He was the greatest talent I'd ever seen," Lee recalled, "… years ahead of his age group." Lee kept in touch with the Louganis family and several years later agreed to coach the teen for the trials for the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, Canada, refusing to accept any payment for his work. Lee took Louganis under his wing, moving him into his home for several months while drilling him in the fine points of the compulsory dives and encouraging him to experiment with new ideas. Louganis made the Olympic team, placing sixth in the springboard competition and winning his first Olympic medal, a silver, as a runner-up in the platform event to one of his idols, Klaus Dibiasi of Italy.

After the 1976 Olympics, Louganis felt a tremendous letdown from the attention and excitement of the world stage as he returned to life as a student at Valhalla High School in El Cajon. He then contracted mononucleosis. After a two-year recovery period, Louganis was ready, both mentally and physically, to compete again. He emerged as a serious contender, taking titles in springboard and platform events at the AAU Indoor Nationals, the World Aquatic Championships, and a host of other prestigious national and international meets.

Following his graduation from Valhalla in 1978, Louganis accepted an athletic scholarship from the University of Miami. In Florida he was forced to focus on his springboard work, which had lagged behind his platform performance, because the U.S. collegiate diving competition did not include platform events. He got immediate results, winning the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) three-meter springboard national title, and going on to win virtually every indoor and outdoor title in college diving. He was a heavy favorite for a gold medal at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, Russia, when President Jimmy Carter mandated a boycott of the event in response to the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan.

Although he was disappointed, Louganis took advantage of the unexpected downtime to concentrate on his studies, transferring in late 1980 to the University of California at Irvine, where he majored in drama and minored in dance. While at Irvine he continued to train, now at the Mission Viejo Nadadores Swim Club under the guidance of the coach Ron O'Brien. Following his college graduation in 1983, in which he earned a B.A. in drama, he accelerated his training for the 1984 Olympic Games.

Now in his early twenties, Louganis had reached full physical maturity at five feet, nine inches tall and 160 pounds, with a body-fat ratio of less than 7 percent. It was evident that he had truly come into his own as an athlete and artist, thrilling crowds and beating all comers with a dazzling repertoire of difficult dives that included a mind-boggling reverse three-and-a-half somersault tuck, which became his trademark. Louganis established his indisputable dominance of the sport at the 1984 Los Angeles Games as the first athlete ever to win gold medals in both the springboard and platform events. Moreover, he won with a total point score of 710.91, becoming the first diver in history to garner more than 700 points. He followed these achievements by winning a four-year string of championship titles at meets around the world, and then repeated his double-gold performances at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea.

"There's nobody who combines all the elements like Greg does—power, grace, and that catlike awareness of his body that enable him to stay almost always straight up and down. He's the state of the art in diving," the former Olympic champion Phil Boggs told the New York Times. The diving expert Todd Smith added that Louganis's "greatest art … is his unique ability to make those difficult dives look easy."

Before retiring in 1988, Louganis compiled a staggering record: five Olympic medals, four of them gold; five world championships; and forty-seven U.S. national diving titles. He was also a three-time NCAA champion and earned scores of wins in dual meets and other events. In 1985 Louganis received the Sullivan Award as the outstanding amateur athlete in the United States. He won the Jesse Owens Award in 1987, received the Olympic Spirit Award at the close of the 1988 Seoul Games, and was inducted into both the Olympic Hall of Fame (1985) and the International Swimming Hall of Fame (1993).

Less than a year before the 1988 Olympics, Louganis learned that he had tested positive for the human immunodeficiency (HIV) virus, but was dissuaded from revealing his condition to the public by his coach, Ron O'Brien. To complicate matters, during the qualifying dives in Seoul he hit his head on the springboard and opened up a gash. Louganis remembered being "paralyzed by fear … I heard this big hollow thud, and then I found myself in the water." Remarkably he went on to win both diving competitions. However, his decision not to reveal his condition, even to the doctor who treated the wound, remained controversial.

In 1995, following the examples of the basketball star Magic Johnson and the tennis great Arthur Ashe, Louganis announced to the public that he was HIV-positive and had been formally diagnosed with acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Appearing on ABC's 20/20 television program, Louganis told Barbara Walters that he had been on antiviral drug therapy since 1987 and discussed his homosexuality, about which he had been open to his family and friends since he was a teenager. "I was lucky to find one person on the 1976 Olympic team who would room with me," he recalled.

Following his retirement from competitive diving, Louganis pursued an acting career sporadically, playing minor roles in several films, including Touch Me (1997) and Mighty Ducks 2 (1994), as well as a part in the off-Broadway play Jeffrey (1993). In 1995 Louganis published his autobiography, Breaking the Surface, followed by For the Life of Your Dog (1999), which grew out of his personal interest in animals and the training of Great Danes. He also volunteered with PAWS/LA, helping AIDS patients to care for their animals.

Louganis's decade-long dominance of international diving will long be remembered in the sports world, and young divers will no doubt continue to strive for the aesthetic standards he defined for the sport. Arguably, however, his greatest contribution to society will remain the example of his perseverance of excellence in the face of the extraordinary series of personal difficulties that he faced throughout his life.

Louganis wrote an autobiography with Eric Marcus, Breaking the Surface (1995), and published a collaboration with Betsy Sikora Siino, For the Life of Your Dog (1999). Ron O'Brien, a longtime coach for the U.S. Olympic diving team, wrote Diving for Gold (1992), which outlines his coaching techniques, including those he used in training Louganis, his prize pupil. A useful article on the diver's early life and career appears in the 1984 Current Biography Yearbook. Louganis's announcement of his AIDS diagnosis and homosexuality is reported in Richard Sandomir, New York Times (23 Feb. 1995).

David Marc

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