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'Who Am I Without My Sport?' Greg Louganis On Life After Olympics

Aug 2, 2015
Originally published on August 18, 2015 2:51 pm

Greg Louganis is the best diver of his generation — perhaps the best the world has ever seen. The four-time gold medalist is the only man to ever sweep the diving events in consecutive Olympics.

The new documentary Back on Board, by director Cheryl Furjanic and producer Will Sweeney, contrasts that success with the inner turmoil Louganis experienced rising to stardom at such a young age.

Much of the film, which premieres Tuesday on HBO, focuses on one of the most pivotal moments of Greg Louganis's career. At the Seoul Olympics in 1988, he was going for his third gold medal when he hit his head on the springboard.

"The first emotion I felt, I was embarrassed — because this is the Olympic games! I'm supposed to be a pretty good diver," Louganis tells NPR's Arun Rath. "Pretty good divers don't do that."

He talks with Rath about getting back into the competition after that experience, as well as coming out as a gay and HIV-positive athlete.


Interview Highlights

On deciding to continue to competing after hitting his head on the springboard

They sewed up my head and I made that decision with my coach Ron O'Brien that I was going to continue. He was just saying "Well, hockey players they get 20 stitches and they get back on the ice. You got five stitches. It's nothing!" And we were laughing about the whole thing.

But when I got up on the board and they announced the dive and it was in the same direction that I hit my head on the board. I could hear an audible gasp from the audience. So I took a deep breath and I patted my chest. And then the people around who saw that started chuckling and I started laughing to myself, thinking, "Oh my God, I'm not the only one who's scared. I don't know what's gonna happen."

As it turned out, it was the highest scoring dive, I think, of that Olympic games.

On being HIV-positive while he achieved his Olympic success

Six months prior to the Olympic Games in Seoul, Korea in 1988, I was diagnosed HIV-positive. And I was training in Florida at the time, and I was gonna pack my bags, come back to California, lock myself in my house, and wait to die because we thought of HIV/AIDS as a death sentence. And talking with my doctor he said, "The healthiest thing for you is to continue training." And so it was much easier for me to focus on the diving rather than the HIV, you know.

When I hit my head on the board, I was paralyzed by fear. I didn't know what my responsibility was, because really the people who were at risk were the two doctors that were sewing up my head — that was a concern. But I was also competing in a country had they known my HIV status, I wouldn't have been allowed into the country to be able to compete at that Olympic Games.

On the anger directed at him after he came out as gay and HIV-positive

There was a lot of debate going on around the country ... but the thing is, it got people talking about it. I mean, my first interview was with Barbara Walters, and then on Friday on 20/20, and then on Monday I'm talking to Oprah. So what I told Barbara when we did our interview, I said, "Well, all of those people who cheered for me through my Olympic career can no longer say that they have not been touched by HIV/AIDS."

It was important to learn how you got HIV, but it was also important how you're not gonna get HIV — and you're not gonna get HIV through a chlorinated pool.

On returning to the diving world to mentor current Olympic hopefuls

It's great to share those experiences. I'm most concerned with aftercare because as an elite athlete you finish your career and then you're pretty young. When you retire from your sport then it's almost like you lose a part of yourself. You lose your identity ... I retired at 28 ... You know, making that transition is not always easy. It's like, "OK, now who am I? Who am I without my sport?"

On how gay rights and attitudes towards homosexuality have changed since the '80s

It really is shocking to me because where we are today, being legally married in the state of California, having the Supreme Court ruling. You know, during the ceremony when my husband and I got married ... we kinda smiled at each other and said our parents are looking down on us and smiling on us today.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

Greg Louganis, a magnificent diver - perhaps the best the world has ever seen. He took home a four gold medals in two Olympic Games, the only man ever to sweep the diving events in consecutive Olympics. But the new HBO documentary "Back On Board" contrasts that success with the turmoil Louganis experienced rising to stardom at such a young age.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BACK ON BOARD")

GREG LOUGANIS: When I was growing up, you know, I asked my mom, you know, why can't I be normal? (Laughter) You know, like, do the things that normal kids do. You know, it's lonely. You miss out on a lot. You know, I'm having my doubts. I don't know if it - if it was really all worth it.

RATH: In the pivotal moment in "Back On Board," we see just how far his life is from normal. He's going for his third gold medal in 1988.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

RATH: And hits his head on the springboard.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BACK ON BOARD")

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Louganis hits the board. That is disaster.

RATH: I spoke with Greg Louganis and asked him to relive that moment.

LOUGANIS: When I took off the board, I knew I was going to be close, but usually you're worried about hitting your hands or your arms. And then I heard this big hollow thud, and I go crashing into the water. And I go - what was that? And then once I realized it was my head, I - the first emotion I felt - I was embarrassed because this is the Olympic Games. I'm supposed to be a pretty good diver.

RATH: (Laughter).

LOUGANIS: And it was like - pretty good divers don't do that. I think the real story is the following dive. They sewed up my head, you know, and I made that decision with my coach, Ron O'Brien, that I was going to continue. He was just saying, well, hockey players - they get 20 stitches, and they get back on the ice. You got five stitches, you know. We were laughing about the whole thing.

But when I got up on the board and they announced dive and it was in the same direction that I hit my head on the board, I could hear an audible gasp from the audience. And so I took a deep breath, and I patted my chest. And then the people around who saw that started chuckling. And I started laughing to myself, thinking, oh, my God, I'm not the only one who's scared, you know? I don't know what's going to happen. As it turned out, I mean, it was the highest scoring dive, I think, of that Olympic Games.

RATH: And that moment, then, after that when you go on to win the gold...

LOUGANIS: Yeah.

RATH: ...You look just even more superhuman at that point, but there's all this other stuff going on in your head in the back.

LOUGANIS: Yeah.

RATH: You know at that point that you're HIV-positive.

LOUGANIS: Right. Six months prior to the Olympic Games in Seoul, Korea, I was diagnosed HIV-positive. And I was training in Florida at the time. And I was going to pack my bags, come back to California, lock myself in my house and wait to die because we thought of HIV/AIDS as a death sentence. In talking with my doctor, he said the healthiest thing for you is to continue training. And so it was much easier for me to focus on the diving rather than the HIV.

You know, when I hit my head on the board, I was paralyzed by fear. I didn't know what my responsibility was because, really, the people who were at risk where the two doctors that were sewing up my head. That was a concern. But I was also competing in a country that - had they known my HIV status, I wouldn't have been allowed into the country to be able to compete at that Olympic Games.

RATH: After that, when you came out as gay and HIV-positive, that was still a pretty panicky time about infection.

LOUGANIS: Yeah.

RATH: And there was a lot of anger directed at you.

LOUGANIS: Yeah, there was a lot of debate going on around the country. And - but the thing is it got people talking about it. I mean, my first interview was with Barbara Walters and then on Friday, on "20/20" and then on Monday, I'm talking to Oprah. And so what I told Barbara, when we did our interview - I said, well, all of those people who cheered for me through my Olympic career can no longer say that they have not been touched by HIV/AIDS. It was important to learn how you got HIV, but it was also important how you're not going to get HIV. And you're not going to get HIV through a chlorinated pool.

RATH: You stayed away from the world of diving in the years after you retired, but you've come back now. You've been involved with mentoring the U.S. team. You were in London in 2012.

LOUGANIS: Yeah.

RATH: What has it been like connecting with those young people?

LOUGANIS: Yeah, it's great to share those experiences. I'm most concerned with aftercare because as an elite athlete, you finish your career, and then you're pretty young. When you retire from your sport, then it's almost like you lose a part of yourself. You lose your identity.

RATH: You were retired at 30?

LOUGANIS: I retired at 28.

RATH: Twenty-eight (laughter).

LOUGANIS: Yeah. Yeah, you know, making that transition is not always easy. It's like, OK, now who am I? Who am I without my sport?

RATH: So who are you without your sport?

LOUGANIS: Who am I without my sport? Well, that's a really complex question.

RATH: (Laughter).

LOUGANIS: It really is because I have so many interests. You know, my background is dance and performing, and so, you know, getting back into that, getting back into theater. And, you know, I never viewed myself as political, nut just looking at my life, I guess it is rather political.

RATH: Another thing that's wild about watching this documentary is the '80s and the '90s weren't that long ago, but in terms of gay rights and attitudes, we see how far we've come, how fast. I mean, looking back on all this, is it surprising to you?

LOUGANIS: It really is shocking to me because being legally married in the state of California, having the Supreme Court ruling. You know, during the ceremony, when my husband and I got married, you know, we kind of smiled at each other because - neither one of our parents are with us, but you know the kind of smiled at each other and said, our parents are looking down on us and smiling on us today.

RATH: Greg Louganis - the new documentary about him is called "Back On Board." It's on HBO on Tuesday. It's been such a pleasure speaking with you. Thank you.

LOUGANIS: Thank you. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.