Two-time Olympic gold medal winner Greg Louganis is generally considered by sportswriters and fans the best diver in the history of the sport. For years he was simply unbeatable in diving competitions. At the same time, his personal struggles as a closeted gay man often left him feeling alone and worthless. This combination of public adulation and private torment created a complex pattern in Louganis' life, alternating between highly disciplined athletic prowess in the pool and self-destructive impulses in his private life. Louganis explored these themes in his cathartic autobiography Breaking the Surface.
Talents and Trials
Gregory Louganis was born on January 29, 1960, to two fifteen-year-olds, one Samoan and the other Northern European, who gave him up for adoption. Interestingly, his adoptive parents, Peter and Frances Louganis, were specifically looking for a darker child, in contrast to their own fair-haired, light-skinned community. Louganis' Samoan ancestry fit the bill, and he grew up looking and feeling different from most of his classmates. His dyslexia, misdiagnosed as a learning disability, did not help, and he was often taunted by other schoolchildren. His small stature also left him victimized by bullies, further undermining his self-esteem.
At the same time, Louganis was discovering special talents that would offset all the isolation and the taunting,
and would ultimately carry him to Olympic glory. From the age of 18 months, he had been taking dancing and acrobatics lessons with his sister Despina. Louganis proved a natural, and with his partner Eleanor, he won a number of dance competitions. He developed a comfort on stage that he lacked at home and at school, but perhaps the most important aspect was the method his dance instructor used. She insisted that the children visualize their dance routines before performing them. These visualization techniques would help Louganis master highly technical routines in the sport that would ultimately capture his interest: diving.
When Louganis began doing acrobatic routines off the diving board at a nearby pool, his worried mother signed him up for diving lessons. Greg took to the sport immediately, and soon showed a rare ability, even more than with dancing. Before long, he dropped dancing altogether to focus on his diving. While his father had never shown any interest in his dancing, he showed an intense interest in Greg's diving. It was a sign that some things were okay for boys, and others were not.
The Young Olympian
Louganis was soon performing in amateur diving contests, and at the age of 11, he found himself at the 1971 AAU Junior Olympics. The event would prove a turning point, for there two-time Olympic gold medallist Sammy Lee discovered the young prodigy. Spotting the boy's talent, he decided to take him on and coach him to the Olympics. He was the first to suggest to Louganis that he could go that far—but he still needed work. As Louganis recalled in his autobiography: "Dr. Lee told me that I didn't have a killer instinct, that it wasn't in my nature to fight.… Part of his training was to toughen me up, which I needed. He taught me to dive in all kinds of weather and to dive whether I felt like it or not." Lee also emphasized that the future Olympic champion would have to become a proper role model.
This meant losing some bad habits that Louganis had already picked up, like drinking, sneaking cigarettes, and doing drugs. He was going through a painful adolescence, fighting with his parents, getting into legal troubles, and even attempting a half-hearted suicide attempt. In diving, Louganis found the necessary incentive to pull himself together and focus on a larger goal. Under Lee's training that goal became the Olympics, and in 1976 he got his first shot at the gold. In fact, that year he qualified for both the spring board and platform events.
Despite his thrill at being at the Montreal Olympics, at age 16, the games actually proved a rough time for Louganis. His mates on the U.S. team proved less supportive and more competitive than he had hoped, and because Lee was actually not the official team coach, he had trouble gaining entry to help train Louganis at pool-side. Nervous and distracted, Louganis came in sixth in the spring board competition, but in the platform competition he seemed to regain his focus. In dive after dive he came close to matching two-time gold medallist Klaus Dibiasi, and in the end he came within 24 points of beating him, earning the silver medal. Surprised at the close score, Dibiasi told Louganis, "Next time, I watch you."
Getting the Gold
Despite being a 16-year-old silver medallist, Louganis actually found the next few years hard. He felt confused by his newfound celebrity status, having been largely invisible to his classmates just months before, and he continued to drink and smoke far too much. In addition, he injured his back at a practice session, and there were days when the pain was so bad he simply could not dive at all. And he was still wrestling with his sexuality. He actually began seeing an older man at this point, but the encounters were furtive, and he felt just as isolated as before.
Once again, diving was the only thing that gave him confidence. About this time he began working with Ron O'Brien, a coach who would also prove to be a great friend. At first, Louganis alternated between coaches, working with O'Brien when Dr. Lee was unavailable, but shortly after graduating from high school, he decided it was time to choose. He chose O'Brien. He was grateful to Lee, but he decided O'Brien's more encouraging coaching style was better for him.
O'Brien was gentle, but he was certainly no pushover. He continued to push Louganis to learn ever more difficult dives. In 1978, Louganis won the World Aquatic Platform Championship and the U.S. Diving 1-meter and 10-meter titles. That same year he entered the University of Miami on a scholarship. Being in the NCAA, which had no platform competitions, forced him to concentrate on his weaker sport, springboard diving. This actually proved a boon later on.
In 1980, Louganis took the gold medals in both springboard and platform competitions at the Pan American Games. Most observers expected him to do the same at the Olympics, but that year the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and President Carter boycotted the Moscow Olympics in retaliation. Four years could mean the difference between peak performance and the second tier, but Louganis continued to push himself hard. In 1981, he transferred to the University of California at Irvine to train with Ron O'Brien at the world-famous Mission Viejo Nadadores Driving Club. In 1982, he took the springboard and platform titles at the World Championship, becoming the first diver to win the scores of a perfect 10 from seven judges, and the highest score ever for a single dive: 92.07.
|1960||Born January 29, in San Diego, California. Adopted by Peter and Frances Louganis, of El Cajon, California.|
|1962||Begins taking dancing lessons; begins entering dancing and gymnastics competitions|
|1969||Begins taking diving lessons (USFSA) competition|
|1971||Spotted at AAU Junior Olympics by Dr. Sammy Lee, former gold medallist diver. Begins training under Dr. Lee|
|1976||Takes Silver Medal in Platform Diving at XXI Olympics|
|1978||Wins platform and springboard competitions at World Aquatic Championships|
|1978||Enters University of Miami|
|1981||Transfers to University of California at Irvine to continue training under coach Ron O'Brien|
|1982||Wins springboard and platform titles at World Championships|
|1984||Wins Gold Medals in platform and springboard competitions at XXIII Olympics (becomes first diver to break 700-point score, in platform)|
|1984||Moves in with "business manager" and lover, "Tom." Begins to let Tom handle most of his finances|
|1986||Participates in Circus of the Stars|
|1988||Again, takes gold medals in springboard and platform at XXIV Olympics (first diver to win two gold medals in two successive Olympics)|
|1988||Retires from diving, breaks off relationship with "Tom"|
|1994||Appears at Gay Games IV, official announcer at diving competition|
|1994||Plays himself in D2: The Mighty Ducks|
|1995||Appeared in Off Broadway one man show, The Only Thing Worse You Could Have Told Me ; also appeared as Darius in Jeffrey|
Clearly, Greg Louganis was on his way to the 1984 Olympics, to be held in Los Angeles, and expectations were high. As one Sports Illustrated reporter put it in July of that year, "Louganis is as close to perfection in his sport as it's possible to be, and among all U.S. Olympic athletes, no one is a surer bet to win a gold medal in Los Angeles." Oddly, that would prove slightly pessimistic. For that year he won gold medals in both the platform and springboard competitions, the first male diver to do so since 1928. He also became the first diver to break the 700-point barrier, scoring 710.91 in the platform competition. But the scores were only part of the magic. As a Time reporter wrote, "The most ignorant of spectators sees Louganis go off a springboard and thinks, 'Oh, that's what it's all about.' The experts are awed."
Four years later, Greg Louganis went to his third Olympics, this time in Seoul, South Korea. By this time, he'd won five world championships, 47 national diving titles, a record ten Pan American gold medals, and two Olympic golds. He was widely hailed as the greatest diver ever, and was clearly the man to beat. Still, at 28, age was beginning to take its toll on Louganis. And something more ominous was weighing on his mind. Earlier that year, he'd been diagnosed HIV-positive. He was also involved in the last stages of an abusive relationship with a man, identified as "Tom" in his autobiography, who also acted as Louganis' manager. Tom was also HIV-positive, which added to Louganis' worries.
Given all this, it is surprising that Louganis was able to compete at all in the Seoul Olympics. As Louganis wrote in his autobiography, "In the past, it had always been a struggle to keep the turmoil of my daily life and the ups and downs of my own emotions from getting in the way of what I did on the diving board. In Seoul, it was almost impossible." Then in the preliminaries leading up to the event, Louganis cracked his head on the springboard on a reverse dive with a two and a half somersault. It was a shock to spectators and a deeply traumatic event for Louganis, who worried that the blood in the water could infect other divers, and who was too afraid to tell even the doctor who treated him that he was HIV-positive.
Amazingly, Greg Louganis pulled in two more gold medals, in springboard and platform diving, becoming the only diver to win two medals in two successive Olympics. Just as satisfying, he was given the Olympic Spirit Award, meaning that he was considered the most inspiring athlete of that year's 9600 Olympic competitors. It was a deeply satisfying result for someone whose personal life was in such upheaval. And it meant for a triumphant farewell, for Louganis had already decided that this would be his last Olympics.
Awards and Accomplishments
|1976||Silver Medal, 10-meter Platform, Montreal Olympics,|
|1978||First place, World Championships|
|1978||First place, platform and 1-meter springboard, U.S. Indoor and Outdoor National Championships|
|1979||Gold medal, Pan American Games, 3-meter springboard and platform|
|1979||First place, Phillips 66 Indoor and Outdoor National Championships, 1-meter springboard|
|1980||First place, Phillips 66 Indoor National Championships, 1-meter and 3-meter springboard; Outdoor National Championships, 1-meter and 3-meter springboards and platform|
|1981||First place, Phillips 66 Indoor and Outdoor National Championships, 1-meter and 3-meter springboard; National Sports Festival, first place, platform|
|1982||First Place, National Sports Festival, 3-meter springboard and platform; First Place, Phillips 66 Indoor National Championships, 1-meter and 3-meter springboard; Outdoor National Championships, 1-meter and 3-meter springboard|
|1982||First place, World Championships, springboard and platform|
|1983||First place, National Sports Festival, 3-meter springboard and platform; First place, Phillips 66 Outdoor National Championships, 3-meter springboard and platform|
|1983||Gold medal, Pan American Games, 3-meter springboard and platform|
|1984||First place, National Sports Festival, 1-meter and 3-meter springboard; First place, Phillips 66 Indoor National Championships, 1-meter and 3-meter springboard and platform, Outdoor National Championships, 1-meter and 3-meter springboard and platform|
|1984||Gold medal, XXIII Olympic Games, springboard and platform|
|1984||James A. Sullivan Award for outstanding achievements, AAU|
|1985||First place, National Sports Festival, 3-meter springboard and platform; First place, Phillips 66 Indoor National Championships, 1-meter and 3-meter springboard and platform, Outdoor National Championships, 1-meter and 3-meter springboard and platform|
|1985||Inducted in Olympics Hall of Fame|
|1986||First place, U.S. Olympic Festival, 3-meter springboard and platform; First place, Phillips 66 Indoor National Championships, 1-meter and 3-meter springboard and platform; Outdoor National Championships, 1-meter and 3-meter springboard and platform|
|1987||First place, U.S. Olympic Festival, 3-meter springboard and platform; First place, Phillips 66 Outdoor National Championships, 3-meter springboard and platform|
|1987||Gold medal, Pan American Games, 3-meter springboard and platform|
|1987||Jesse Owens Award|
|1988||First place, U.S. Olympic Festival, 3-meter springboard and platform; First place, Phillips 66 Indoor National Championships, platform; Outdoor National Championships, 1-meter and 3-meter springboard and platform|
|1988||Gold medal, XXIII Olympic Games, springboard and platform|
|1988||Olympic Spirt Award, U.S. Olympic Committee|
|1993||Inducted in International Swimming Hall of Fame|
|1994||Eighth place, Lillehammer Winter Olympics|
|1994||Robert J. Kane Award, U.S. Olympic Committee|
After Diving—and After Tom
Retired from diving competitions, Louganis had time to focus on his relationship with "Tom," and what he found was very disturbing. Among other things, he had only $2,000 to his name. Everything else was either in Tom's name or in both of their names. He also suspected that Tom was cheating on him, sometimes with gay youths who wrote him fan letters. Louganis hired a private investigator, who discovered that Tom had been charged with theft, insurance fraud, and even prostitution. After some prolonged negotiations, they agreed to go their separate ways. In fact, Louganis agreed to provide for Tom for the rest of his life, a rather generous settlement given their recent history together.
Free of his "business manager" and retired from diving, Greg Louganis felt somewhat at loose ends. But about this time he rediscovered an old interest of his: acting. He had graduated from the University of California at Irvine with a degree in drama, and now he began to take acting and voice lessons. Already he was doing appearances and commercials for sponsors such as Speedo, but now he began to perform in musicals and in plays such as an off-Broadway production of Jeffrey, about a young man dealing with AIDS. He also got some television roles and movies such as The Mighty Ducks.
At the same time, he decided to come clean about being gay and HIV-positive, which he did in an autobiography, entitled Breaking the Surface. He also appeared at the Gay Games, in June of 1994, where he announced, "It's great to be out and proud." Shortly thereafter he was instrumental in getting the 1996 Olympic volleyball preliminaries moved from Cobb County, Georgia, where county commissioners had recently passed an anti-gay resolution.
Breaking the Surface
The Ryan White story was impossible to miss, and it really caught my attention. I first saw Ryan on CNN. I was really impressed by this kid who had gone to court to go to school…. Ryan was sick, but instead of people having compassion for him, they were terrified that he'd spread AIDS by going to school. I thought if I showed I wasn't afraid of Ryan, then maybe others would follow my example.
As oblivious as I was in those days, I knew of course that most of the people who suffered from HIV and AIDS discrimination were gay men. There was no other way I felt I could get involved in the issue of AIDS without risking some reporter asking questions about my life. Helping Ryan was a way of lending my name and stature to the AIDS cause without having anyone get suspicious. And then I met Ryan and my life changed….
Despite his maturity, Ryan was still a teenager. Later, when we did press interviews together, he'd keep me in stitches by making faces at me from behind the reporter's back. But he never failed to impress me with his intelligence and his perseverance…. I was amazed at how he handled himself, whether it was one-on-one or on national television. He was—and is—an inspiration.
Source: Greg Louganis and Eric Marcus, Breaking the Surface, New York: Rand House, 1995, pp. 170-171.
Where Is He Now?
Currently, Greg Louganis is focused on acting, speaking engagements, and a relatively new vocation, training dogs. One of his dogs, a Harlequin Great Dane, appeared in the movie Beethoven II. He has also continued his work as an AIDS activist, making speeches throughout the country. He remains healthy, and continues to work out, including a yoga regimen. In contrast, he has largely abandoned diving. In July of 2002 he told a Knight-Ridder reporter that "he hasn't performed a dive in eight or nine years." Still, he remains the man who set the standard for future divers. To date, none have matched his combination of grace and power on the diving board.
SELECTED WRITINGS BY LOUGANIS:
(With Eric Marcus) Breaking the Surface, New York: Random House, 1995.
Louganis, Greg, and Eric Marcus. Breaking the Surface.
New York: Random House, 1995.
Callahan, Tom. "Star-spangled Home Team: U.S. Olympians Are Certain to Give the Nation Something to Shout About." Time (July 30, 1984): 60.
Gietschier, Steve. "Review of Breaking the Surface." The Sporting News (May 1, 1995): 9.
"Greg Louganis: An Olympic Hopeful." Co-Ed (August-September 1983): 102.
"Greg Louganis: Freed from His Secrets, the Superstar Diver Plunges into AIDS Activism." People 49 (July 15, 1996): 74.
Harasta, Cathy. "Olympic Diving Legend Pursuing Artistry in Arenas Outside Pool." Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service (July 28, 2002): K4980.
"Leaps and Laps for L.A."Life 147 (June 1983): 62.
Leifer, Neil. "Getting Ready: With Six Weeks to Go, America's Athletes Pump Up for Their Moment in Seoul." Times (August 15, 1988): 48.
Neff, Craig. "A Double Victory with a New Twist." Sports Illustrated (May 9, 1983): 60.
Neff, Craig. "The Best is Getting Better." Sports Illustrated (August 29, 1983): 11.
Neff, Craig. "It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Supergreg!" Sports Illustrated (August 20, 1984): 80.
Neff, Craig. "Flying Over Troubled Waters: Greg Louganis Starred Again at the Olympic Trials, Which Were Touched by Controversy." Sports Illustrated (August 29, 1988): 28.
Neff, Craig. "High Flyers." Sports Illustrated (September 14, 1988): 85.
Neff, Craig. "Good and Tough: After Hitting His Head on the Springboard, Greg Louganis Won the Gold—Again." Sports Illustrated (October 3, 1988): 58.
"A New Leash on Life: Retired from Diving, a Healthy Greg Louganis Now Spends His Time Coaching Canines." People Weekly (June 25, 2001): 113.
Plummer, William. "Diver Greg Louganis Returns to Dancing, His First Love, Before the Eyes of His Pal Ryan White." People Weekly (November 9, 1987): 44.
Putnam, Pat. "Gaining at Last on the Top Guy." Sports Illustrated (April 27, 1987): 40.
Reed, Susan. "Primed and Pumped for Seoul." People Weekly (September 19, 1988): 48.
Skow, John. "A Soaring, Majestic Slowness That Describes Greg Louganis, the Class of a Classy Field." Time (August 20, 1984): 62.
Skow, John. "Splashes of Class and Acts of Heroism." Time (October 3, 1988): 58.
Stathoplos. "No One Does It Better." Sports Illustrated (July 18, 1984): 480.
Sketch by Robert Winters