Greg Louganis cemented his place in U.S. Olympic history when he swept the diving events at the 1984 and 1988 Games. Now, nearly three decades later, Louganis is getting ready to head to Rio as an official athlete mentor for the U.S. diving team. But first he talked to Body Issue reporter Morty Ain about staying fit at 56, living with HIV and that infamous head injury in Seoul. Here’s Louganis, in his own words:
Story via ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue 2016.
ON THE ART OF DIVING
A performance in diving should be as emotional as any well-written play. It should be inspired. One of my first coaches, John Anders, said that his coach would say that “diving should be like poetry.” And that’s what he likened it to, as emotional as a beautifully written poem.
I did dance and acrobatics since I was a year and a half, performing onstage since I was 3. That’s communication without words — using your body in such a way to communicate an emotion, an idea, a thought. So that is kind of the same thing I felt with diving — that I could express myself, and my body would serve as my paintbrush.
As an athlete mentor with USA Diving, I tell the kids that the person who wins an Olympic gold medal isn’t the one who is the most perfect; it’s usually the one who makes the least number of visible mistakes. Rather than focus on perfection, I encourage them to focus on success. If you focus on how successful you can be at that moment in time, I think that is really key. Make those minor adjustments in order to be successful, not to focus on being perfect. So when I was on the board, what I would do is take a deep breath, let it all out. I knew the dive that I was going to be doing, but just allow my body to do what it is trained to do. Don’t overthink; just do.
ON BEING DIAGNOSED WITH HIV
At the time I was diagnosed [in 1988], we thought of HIV as a death sentence. It was six months prior to the Olympic Games, and I was like, “Well, I’m going to pack my bags and go home and lock myself in my house and wait to die.” Had they known about my HIV status at the ’88 Olympics in Seoul, I would have never been allowed into the country. But my doctor encouraged me that the healthiest thing for me would be to continue training for the Olympics. The diving was much more of a positive thing to focus on. I did suffer from depression; if we had a day off, I couldn’t get out of bed. I would just pull the covers over my head. But as long as I had something on the calendar, I showed up. Whether that was to work out, an interview or speaking or appearances, I’d show up. I’ve long suffered from chronic depression, so even when I was younger, I didn’t think I’d see 30.
ON HITTING HIS HEAD IN SEOUL
As I was taking off the board, I knew that I was going to be close. I knew that I stood it up a little straight, and usually when you do something like that, you’re worried about hitting your hand or, god forbid, your arm. When I was coming out of the dive, I made sure that my arms were wide so that I would not hit the board, but then I heard this big hollow thud and I go crashing into the water, and I was thinking, “What was that?” Then I realized, “Oh my god, that was my head.”
My first feeling was embarrassment. I was embarrassed. I was thinking, “How do I get out of this pool without anyone seeing me?” It’s the Olympic Games and I’m supposed to be a pretty good diver and good divers don’t do that [laughs]. But then I got angry with myself, to have allowed that to happen. And then after my coach got my head sewn up, he said, “Do you want to continue? I’ll support you 100 percent in whatever you decide.” I turned to him with kind of a knee-jerk reaction and said, “We’ve worked too long and hard to get here, and I don’t want to give up without a fight.” But when something like that happens, it just totally deflates any confidence that you have, and he did turn to me and say, “Look, I know you don’t believe in yourself right now, but believe in me because I believe in you.” And I was like, “OK.”
I knew that I had two more dives to get through prelims, and of course the next two dives were going in the same direction — in reverse. I was like, “OK, just treat it like nothing happened. The dive before did not happen.” It was funny because I got set on the board, they announced my name, they announced the dive, and I could hear an audible gasp from the audience. I was like, “Oh my god, they are afraid.” I took a deep breath and I patted my chest because I felt like my heart was pounding outside my chest. And when I took that breath, the people that saw that started chuckling. It was like, “Oh my god, he’s afraid too!” Then I started laughing and thought, “OK, whatever it’s going to be, it’s going to be,” and just went for it. So I did my reverse 1½ with 3½ twists and stood it up, but stood it up in the right place.
In regards to bleeding into the water, I was paralyzed by fear. I didn’t know what my responsibility was, and I didn’t have a whole lot of time to prepare for my next dive, if I was going to continue. It was a strange time. I remember when we finally finished and we had our team dinner at the end of Seoul, we were handed our Olympic rings and then we were supposed to share something with our family of divers. I got up there and I turned to my coach, Ron O’Brien, and I said, “Nobody will ever know what we’ve just been through.” Because I didn’t think anybody would, because I didn’t think that I would live long enough to see it.
ON BEING A GAY ATHLETE
I learned later that there were some team meetings. The dive team is a very small group, so when we were traveling internationally, I guess there were team meetings about who was going to room with me. I ended up rooming with maybe a coach, or maybe they would get me my own room. There was usually one person on the team that was secure enough in their sexuality that it didn’t matter, but no one really wanted to room with “the fag.” In retrospect, I don’t know how much of that was true homophobia, because I’ve been in touch with a lot of these guys since then and my sexual identity is not an issue to the vast majority of them. But at the time, I was winning. So I don’t know how much of it was true homophobia or how much of it was jealousy.
But there were signs; my teammate Kent Ferguson remembers it as BTF Club: “Beat the Fag Club.” It was right around the time that “Ghostbusters” came out; I remember we were staying in these dormitories and had shared bathrooms, so there would be “FAG” with the “not” sign like “Ghostbusters” and all this. “Who you gonna call? Fagbusters.” That was kind of what was going on at that particular competition; I think it was an Olympic festival. So I was very much aware of that.
Things are different now. I think we’ve come to a place of acknowledging bullying and recognizing the importance of standing up for your fellow teammate. I think there is less of that. There is much more sensitivity, and people are much more open. Just look at how many athletes have come out now. The one that I really admire is [Australian diver] Matthew Mitcham; he felt like he couldn’t compete on that high level only sharing a part of himself. And so that’s the reason that he came out, and then he won an Olympic gold medal [in 2008], which paves the way for [British diver] Tom Daley coming forward with his sexual identity. It just makes it easier. And then you have Jason Collins, Michael Sam, Robbie Rogers, Gus Kenworthy … there’s a number of them; all of these athletes who can be who they are authentically and not be afraid.
ON LIVING WITH HIV
I felt so isolated because of the secrets at that time. I was out to friends and family, and everybody in the diving world knew about my sexual identity, but very few people knew about my HIV status. I felt like I was living on an island.
In the early 2000s, I started to give up on the treatment. I didn’t feel like I was throwing in the towel so much as waiting to die. But I lacked faith in the treatment. This is when the protease inhibitors were just coming on and the awful side effects of that. A lot of people who were taking the medications were having a really difficult time being compliant with their drug regimen and were giving up. And I was one of those. I stopped taking my meds for over a year. My T cells dropped to, I think, 11; my viral load was in the millions. I felt fine, I felt OK, but my numbers were just ridiculously out of whack.
I sold my life insurance. My insurance policy actually showed up on the show “American Greed”! Which was fascinating. They reached out to me: “Well, this 92-year-old woman in Florida bought your life insurance policy.” Oh my god, I felt so bad. And when I did the interview, they produced a document that was notarized and signed by my previous doctor saying that I only had a maximum of six months to live. It was so devastating. That was a good reason why he’s not my doctor anymore [laughs].
It’s a smart virus. It mutates over time, and they have to change up your treatments to be effective against the virus. I’ve gone through so many of the various treatments through the years, and with a lot of those studies I was their guinea pig. I was doing a play in Chicago, and at the time I was on Norvir; one of the side effects was explosive diarrhea within 20 minutes of taking it, and then it just saps your energy for the next hour to two hours to recover. So what I did was basically I had my rehearsal schedule, and two to three hours prior to having to be onstage or in rehearsal, I would take my medication. So I’d time it in such a way that I could get through. That is kind of the mentality that I was brought up with, because I started as a dancer and, you know, “the show must go on.” It’s that kind of mentality that helped me navigate through the ins and outs of living; it was just a part of my life, I didn’t think of it as anything extraordinary. To me it was just logical.
What I’m on now, I take my meds in the morning, I take my meds in the evening and go about the business of living. I haven’t noticed any side effects per se, not like other treatments. I went a round of interleukin-2 when they were doing that, and that was incredibly debilitating. I couldn’t monitor my body temperature. It was like the worst flu that you could ever have. I went to my doctor and I told him, “There’s something to be said about quality of life, and this is interfering with my quality of life.” I made the decision to not continue with that treatment. It’s a real balance of learning what you can tolerate and what ultimately you can’t. You have to say enough is enough.
ON BEING FIT AT 56
When I look around at my contemporaries, I’d say I’m probably in better shape than most of them [laughs]. It’s all about making healthy choices. I think HIV has helped motivate me mentally and physically. I look at working out and doing something physically active every day as being as important as taking my meds. That’s just a part of my health and well-being. I notice that if I don’t work out, then my head starts spinning; I go to some pretty crazy places. So I do yoga, I do spin, I do circuit training. I’ve started introducing back some gymnastics and some tumbling to maintain strength and flexibility. It’s fun and it gives me an outlet.
My metabolism isn’t quite what it used to be. I struggle with that belly roll. What I’m trying to do is cut sugar out of my diet and eat clean and that sort of thing. I mentioned the belly roll to my husband and he’s like, “Please, you don’t have anything.” Nothing to complain about, but I see it, remembering when I was 23 and 7 percent body fat.
I try to live by example — being gay, being HIV-positive — you know, life goes on. HIV taught me that I’m a lot stronger than I ever believed I was. Also, not to take anything for granted. I didn’t think I would see 30, and here I am at 56. I never know what’s going to be around the corner. I don’t think of anything really as a failure; you’re just learning lessons, and I’ve learned a lot of lessons already [laughs].
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