You’ve probably heard one Greg Louganis story.
During the 1988 Seoul Olympics, after eight rounds of the springboard heats, Louganis was leading by eight points. But on this particular instance, he left the board too straight while attempting a reverse two and a half somersault in pike position and clattered his head as he straightened out.
“I jumped off the board and heard this big clank,” he said later that day. “That’s my perception of the dive – I think my pride was hurt more than anything.”
He came back, managed to qualify for the final and win his second consecutive 3m springboard Olympic gold.
Inspirational no doubt but this wasn’t the whole story. Not even close.
Instead, the real Greg Louganis story is, as he has said in his book Breaking The Surface (you can read it here), “the story of a lonely boy with dyslexia and discrimination, yet discovered he had a great gift for acrobatics and diving. It is about a shy kid who battled low self-esteem, bouts of depression, and conflicts over his sexuality yet still went on to become one of the most accomplished divers of all time. It is about a man who had a world of opportunities yet lost his way when those opportunities ended. And it’s the story of a man who had a hard time learning to live with HIV.”
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At the 1984 Olympics, his quality was clearly evident. His tally of 754.41 points in the springboard event was more than 100 better than his nearest rival. In the 10m platform, his total of 710.91 was the highest in the history of the sport, and nearly 70 points better than the silver medallist. The Guardian called him ‘Mr Perfect’.
But given his beginnings, not many would have given him a chance at success, let alone perfection. His parents were both 15 when he was born, and gave him up for adoption when he was eight months old. As a young child, he suffered from asthma, and had a string of allergies. He was an undiagnosed dyslexic and had a stutter. He got picked on a lot at school and started smoking aged nine, and drinking soon after. As a teenager, he suffered from depression, and there were three suicide attempts.
It was not easy. But Louganis liked to dance, tumble, do gymnastics and dive. So he ‘homed in’ on his physical attributes.
By the time he was 16, he was the best diver in the USA. A silver medal at the 1976 Montreal Olympics in the 10m platform showed that he could cut it with the best in the world too.
But there were already signs of great determination. Once he set his mind to it, there was little Louganis couldn’t do. As a child he developed ophiophobia, a fear of snakes. But his reaction to it showed how different he was from other. He sought to conquer the fear.
He saved up, bought a boa constrictor and fed his snake dead chicks every day until he was cured. It was extreme but that was his way. A single-minded focus set him apart.
In 1988, six months before the Seoul Olympics, Louganis was tested, and discovered that he was HIV positive. His doctor – also his cousin – persuaded him not to give up on diving, and put him on the antiretroviral drug AZT, which he took every four hours round the clock.
So one of the first things he was worried about when his head hit the board was whether he was putting others at risk. It was a burden he was carrying. And it wasn’t the only one either.
In 1995 he came out publicly, in an emotional appearance on Oprah Winfrey’s chat show. That year he admitted on Barbara Walters’s TV programme that he was HIV positive.
“It’s been so difficult, with the secrets and asking people to keep those secrets,” he said. “The rest of my life is about not having secrets, and living my life openly and honestly.”