Greg Louganis is a four-time Olympic gold medal winner, an author and an LGBT activist. He has lived a storied life.
1 - THE LIFE-CHANGING DECISION
Born in 1960, Greg Louganis was abandoned by his teenage parents before he could walk. He was taken in by a family in the suburbs of San Diego, and showed an early appetite and aptitude for athletic endeavours, particularly those that were rhythmically and acrobatically challenging. However, it was their decision to install a swimming pool in their garden in 1969 that changed the trajectory of Louganis’ life. At nine, Louganis began to dive. His mother, concerned for his safety, sent him for lessons at a local swimming pool. His story began with that decision.
GB's Toulson and Spendolini-Sirieix into semi-finals of 10m platform diving
2 – A NEW ERA
Before Louganis, there was Dibiasi. Klaus Dibiasi. The ‘Blond Angel of Diving’. The legend before the legend. Louganis made his Olympic bow in Montreal in 1976, with Dibiasi - who had dominated the platform in the late 60s and early 70s - aiming for a third straight gold medal on the 10m platform in his fourth and final Games. Could the precociously talented 16-year-old Louganis upset the odds? Sammy Lee, his trainer, thought he could. However, while Louganis could not prevent Dibiasi from claiming a remarkable third gold, he left his mark on the master. At the competition’s end, Dibiasi told him the future was his.
3 – A STATEMENT PERFORMANCE
Of the 18 medals he would win at international level, the silver at the Montreal Games remains the exception - the rest were gold. The first of which was won at the World Championships in Berlin in 1978, when he was just 18. The ‘Nureyev of Diving’ dominated the 10m event under the tutelage of new coach Ron O'Brien, who would become a mentor as much as a coach.
4 – FLIRTING WITH DEATH
Louganis was perfection. To watch him dive was to attend a ballet, where one marvelled at a unique blend of grace and power. Louganis’ elegance obscured the dangers of the sport. It is a sport that has wreaked serious injury, or worse, death. During the 80s, Sergei Chalibashvili and Nathan Meade died, aged 21, while competing and training respectively. And Louganis fell victim to a serious accident, too. In 1979, during a United States - USSR meeting in Tbilisi, Louganis hit his head on the platform, before falling 10 metres to the water below. Louganis was unconscious for 20 minutes.
"If the concrete slab hadn't been covered with soft padding, I would have probably died," he said.
5 – A DISAPPOINTMENT THAT CRYSTALLISED FOCUS
In Montreal, Dibiasi was convinced of one thing: Louganis would be his successor. In Moscow, in 1980, the American would, Dibiasi assumed, assume his Olympic mantel. Yet, geopolitics intervened, as Jimmy Carter withdrew the US from the Olympics at protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Louganis had to wait until 1984 for his Olympic coronation, but at the 1982 Worlds in Guayaquil, he made a statement, and a statement like no one before him. His dominance was such that he could have skipped his last dive and still would have won the 3m competition. His best dive? 92.07. In the 10 metre event, he earned a perfect score of 10 from all seven judges – and became the first diver to achieve such a feat at a major international meet.
6 – THE LEGEND AMONG LEGENDS
Journalists have asked me to compare his to other sports. I would say it's like reaching 9.15 meters in the long jump or running the 100 meters in 9.50
Those are the words of Louganis’ coach and mentor O'Brien.
The 1984 Los Angeles Games were the Games of Carl Lewis - and his exceptional quadruple - and of Mary-Lou Retton - the five-time gymnastics medallist and all-around winner - but they were also the Games of Greg Louganis. The 24-year-old sealed his first double at the Olympics. In the men's 3m springboard, he breached the barrier of 700 points in the final. A rarity at the Games. In the men's 10m platform, he did the same. He had set new standards in the sport.
"I don't think it was possible to do better," he would admit later.
7 – THE LIFE-CHANGING MOMENT
Louganis considered retiring after the Los Angeles Games but O'Brien convinced him to target another double and immortality at Seoul. 1988 would be life-changing, but not as Louganis had expected. Six months before the Olympics, his partner tested positive for HIV. In March, Louganis also returned a HIV positive result. It was a seismic shock that brought his mortality into focus. However, a doctor - a doctor who was a relative to be precise - was a source of counsel. The advice, in short, was to move forward, to go to the Games.
8 - THE IMPOSSIBLE DILEMMA
Louganis arrived in South Korea facing an impossible dilemma. To reveal his HIV status was perhaps to bring his Olympic dream to an end. In 1988, HIV was a disease with no little stigma - stigma born of misinformation. Yet, to remain silent was to bear an immeasurable weight. In 2021, it is common knowledge that the risks of the passing on disease are specific and minute. The same could not be said in the 80s.
However, Louganis would triumph again. But first, an accident, suffered during qualification. An attempt at a double somersault and a half reverse pike saw the defending champion hit his head on the springboard. It was embarrassing, but worse was the worry. He was bleeding, and “paralyzed with fear” that blood might seep into the water. The wound was sewn up. The worry continued. Only a select few of his inner circle knew of his diagnosis.
However, he would win again. As he always did. Louganis secured another double in the South Korean capital, the only man in history to sweep the individual diving events in consecutive Olympics.
9 - THE ANNOUNCEMENT
It was not until the 90s that he would open up about his sexuality and HIV status. Secrets can develop into burdens. It was in the early 90s, with mentalities changing, that Louganis felt the time was right. His pre-recorded appearance at the Gay Games in 1994 was soon followed by the publication of his autobiography, Breaking The Surface. The book remained at the top of the New York Times bestseller list for five weeks. It delved into his difficult childhood, suicide attempts, teenage addiction to drugs, and revealed that he had been raped by an ex-partner.
For too long, the water seemed to be Louganis’ only refuge.
10 - THE ACTIVIST
Since retirement, Louganis wrote his autobiography, coached and mentored athletes, and found an affinity with dogs - and dog agility shows - but, most importantly, became a renowned advocate in the fight against discrimination of all kinds.
As one of the first high profile figures to talk openly about having HIV/AIDS, Louganis became an advocate for those living with the condition and an example to the world of the full and active role they could play in society. And as one of the first sport stars to come out, his activism for LGBTQ rights shines as a beacon to those who followed his example.
He used his lived experience to advocate and fight for those who came after him. A true trailblazer.
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Eurosport's ‘Trailblazers’ - a 10-part series showcasing sport’s greatest stories and heroes who inspired meaningful change – continues on Monday with a Greg Louganis special, and is available on eurosport.co.uk and the Eurosport app.
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