Greg Louganis - Getting The Gold
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.
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.