People who watch Greg Louganis dive in competition seem compelled to liken his craft or art to something else. So smooth, so seamless are the few seconds he spends in midair—at times he seems to float beyond the reach of gravity—that great dancers come to mind; thus, Louganis is "the Nureyev of diving" or "the Baryshnikov of diving," depending on how current one wants to be on Russian ballet dancers. Many of his opponents use the words "catlike" and "feline" to describe the way he moves. His father, sitting beneath a framed photograph of his son doing a swan dive, says, "I see him as a bird."
Asked what creature he would most like to be compared to, Gregory Efthimios Louganis, 21 now and not yet completely out of the shell he hid in as a youngster, thinks for a while and then says, "A panther. I have been called that by one of my dance teachers."
Perhaps Louganis inherited his smoothness and grace from his Samoan ancestors, perhaps he acquired them, along with his extraordinary strength and discipline, after he was adopted by the Louganises, by dancing and tumbling from the time he was a baby, not yet 2. The fact is that for as long as anyone can remember, Louganis has had star quality. Followers of diving speak of his "God-given talent" and call him a "natural." Even though he has yet to win an Olympic gold medal (the Olympic boycott last year cost him a crack at two), Louganis is acknowledged as one of the great divers of the world and the very best in springboard. He has won 16 national championships, an Olympic silver medal in 1976, a gold medal at the 1978 World Championships, two golds at the 1979 Pan American Games and a gold at the 1979 World Cup. He has also won three NCAA titles and has a chance of winning four more, which would surpass the record of five held by seven others. He is something apart, a nonpareil.
Watching Louganis take off from a diving board can take your breath away. He soars higher than any of his rivals, he spins and twists more smoothly, more slowly, it seems. Then he lines up his body so that it is perfectly straight and vertical to the pool and. with his arms outstretched, continuing the line of his body, palms out, punches a hole in the surface of the water just big enough for his body to slip through with the least possible splash. In a reverse 1½ layout off the three-meter springboard—his most consistently spectacular dive, one that nobody may ever do as well as he does—he seems to float horizontally like a magic carpet, arcing ever so slowly. "When he does it perfectly," says Ron O'Brien, his coach at Mission Viejo, Calif., "the crowd knows that it has seen something unusual. The judges know it. It's nothing he does technically. It's his grace, along with his strength to hold it in the air, and the lines of his body. Esthetics are an important part of our sport."
May 10, 1981
This dive usually earns him 10s from the judges, the highest score they can give. "He is the only diver I have seen who is capable of getting 10s on all his dives," says Dr. Sammy Lee, his former coach and the 10-meter Olympic champion in 1948 and 1952. Indeed, at last month's indoor nationals in Columbus, Ohio, Louganis' back dive in the pike position off the three-meter board earned him eight 10s from the nine judges. His total for the 11 three-meter dives came to a record 715.74 points. Only he had ever surpassed 700 before: at a meet in Canberra, Australia this January. "With someone like him," says Lee, "they're going to have to raise the scoring to 11s and 12s."
A "perfect 10" in diving requires three ingredients. In the jargon they are 1) a great "top"—soaring height and the ability to perform graceful acrobatics high above the water, 2) getting straight up and down—preparing for entry by becoming perpendicular to the water and 3) a "rip" entry, so named for the sound the diver ought to make as he punches through the surface and enters without a splash. In all this, the lines of the body are extremely important, down to the toes, which ideally should be curled under like a ballerina's on point.
The physical equipment Louganis possesses is formidable. His vertical jump from a standing position on the 10-meter platform has been measured at 37 inches. When he bounces up off the three-meter springboard, his feet seem to reach the level of the seven-meter warmup tower. He is also fortunate enough to have the look of the ideal diver. At 5'9" and 150 pounds, his body is the perfect size, with just the right proportions to satisfy the esthetic requirements judges subconsciously impose.
"Louganis' body is beautiful," says veteran diver Mike Finneran, an old rival. "He never looks bad. He has good toes, good feet, good legs, a good back position, flexible shoulders and a flat lineup. Other divers have some of these qualities. He has them all."
"You just follow your instincts," Louganis says. "When you're in the air, you have something like a cat's sense. You're aware of where your body is going, and your peripheral vision tells you how high off the water you are, so you can plan your dive and your entry. If you are diving well, you have all the time in the world to attend to the details."
Until three years ago, Louganis was primarily a tower specialist. The 10-meter tower is a platform cantilevered out 33 feet above a pool that is 17 feet deep. From his starting position the tower diver looks 50 feet straight down to the bottom of the pool. "And some pools," says Louganis, "look like a little postage stamp." Tower diving isn't for those fearful of heights, but it's considered easier to master than springboard diving. A tower is a constant; it doesn't whip, the way a springboard does, requiring very precise timing for the takeoff.
At the Montreal Olympics, Louganis won a silver medal on the platform, barely losing—by one blown dive and 23.52 points—to the venerable Klaus Dibiasi, Italy's "Blond Angel." It was Dibiasi's third gold medal, his last moment of triumph before retirement. Louganis was only 16 years old; when he congratulated Dibiasi, the Italian said. "Next Olympics, I watch you." In the summer of 1978, Louganis succeeded Dibiasi at the top when he won the platform event at the world championships in Berlin.
Since then Louganis has also become a springboard specialist—in large measure because he enrolled in college and collegiate diving consists only of one-meter and three-meter springboard events. Louganis competed for the University of Miami for two years before transferring recently to the University of California at Irvine. Because of the transfer he is ineligible to compete in collegiate meets until next spring. By the time Louganis finished his freshman year at Miami, he had taken the national three-meter title for the first time, and he has repeated as champion on the three-meter and one-meter boards at the U.S. Indoor and Outdoor Championships ever since.
Louganis sets up his boards in a special way. "I put the fulcrum back farther than most divers," he says, "because I wait for the board longer. The board will be slower, but it will throw the diver up higher. The board starts to move down, up. When it starts going down again, that's when you want to hit it. I listen to the board. I hear it bounce off the fulcrum." In a super-slow-motion film study done at Miami, Louganis' feet hit the board only [1/32] of a second before it bottomed out, which is as close to perfect as anybody has ever been.
Louganis' involvement with springboard diving has caused him to neglect platform diving at times, and in the last two national indoor championships, he has been beaten by Bruce Kimball, a 17-year-old from Ann Arbor, Mich. "I don't mind getting beaten by Bruce," says Louganis. "He's coming up, and I'm glad he's such a tough competitor. He keeps me on my toes."
In summer, when Louganis doesn't have to worry about school, he catches up with his platform training. At the outdoors last August, Louganis was 2.19 points behind Kimball before each took his last tower dive. Kimball dived first, earning 7s and 8s. Louganis made similar scores, but, having chosen a dive of greater difficulty, defeated him by 3.69 points. "My mother was in the stands," he recalls. "When she attends a meet she gives me confidence. The same would be true of my father," he adds, "except that he's usually pacing up and down behind the bleachers."
Louganis has had his share of mishaps and injuries—a bad back in 1977, sore wrists from punching through the water, stinging toes from hitting the board. A year and a half ago, an accident came perilously close to ending Louganis' career. He was competing in a U.S.A.-U.S.S.R. dual meet in Tbilisi. Usually, a 10-meter platform is constructed of cement and covered with a thin non-slip mat. At Tbilisi, however, the takeoff had a plywood surface, supported by two-by-fours. It turned out to be unpredictably bouncy, making it difficult for the divers to control their takeoffs. On Louganis' third dive, a reverse dive pike, he leapt up and, as prescribed, reversed in midair, but as he descended the base of his skull cracked into the platform. Unconscious, he plummeted 33 feet to the pool, landing on his back. He was out cold for 15 minutes.
Although he had been concussed and had suffered a badly bruised back, Louganis was diving again only two days after he got back to Miami. "I was dizzy for a while," he says. In just three days he decided to attempt the reverse pike again. As Miami Coach Steve McFarland watched. Louganis stood, arms outstretched, poised at the end of the platform. Then he jumped...and did a back somersault back onto the platform. Laughing, Louganis looked down at McFarland, whose stomach had done its own somersault.
Last November, Louganis competed in the Martini International at the Crystal Palace in London despite a torn muscle below his left shoulder. He was determined to compete in London because he hoped to meet Aleksandr Portnov, the Russian who had won the three-meter gold medal in the Moscow Olympics. As it turned out, Portnov had stayed home with a knee injury. Louganis did well until his last dive, when the muscle gave and he couldn't hang onto his pike. He came in second to China's Li Kongzheng—by .27 of a point.
Frances Louganis may have felt a bit like McFarland that day in 1961 when she found 1½-year-old Greg standing on his head in the living room of their home in El Cajon, some 12 miles east of San Diego. Frances, a farmer's daughter from Mt. Pleasant, Texas, had met Peter Louganis, the son of Greek immigrants who had settled in New Bedford, Mass., in San Diego in 1952. They were married the following year. Peter Louganis was working as a bookkeeper for the Fishermen Marine Company then; today he is a tuna-boat controller for the American TunaBoats Association. The Louganises have two children, both of them adopted. Despina is a year and a half older than Greg and part Indian, French, English and Irish; Greg's natural father was Samoan, his mother English and Scottish. He was nine months old at the time of the adoption. "Everybody wanted blond, blue-eyed babies then," says Frances. Neither child has ever met its natural parents, though after Greg's silver medal in the Olympics, Frances half expected a knock on the door.
Despina was first to take tap-dancing lessons, but after Mrs. Louganis found Greg standing on his head, she enrolled him as well. "I wanted my children to grow up with a little grace," she says. "Mom didn't want any klutzes," says Greg. By the time Greg was three he was performing in a dance-studio show. He sang Dance with Me while wearing a shiny black tuxedo that his mother had made by hand, a top hat and a carnation in his buttonhole. By his side was his partner, Eleanor Smith, a cute blonde 4-year-old, in tulle and silver tap shoes. "All I can remember about that," says Greg, "is seeing the suit hanging in the closet." By the time Greg and Eleanor were 8 and 9, they were accomplished tumblers who took part in acrobatics competitions. When Greg began to practice his acrobatics off the diving board at the backyard pool, Peter Louganis felt it was time for his boy to see a diving coach.
Greg began to take diving lessons at the Parks and Recreation Center in La Mesa, not far from El Cajon, when he was 9. Lee remembers seeing him for the first time in the 1971 Junior Olympics at Colorado Springs, when Greg was 11. The old Olympic champ, who is 61 now and an ear specialist in Santa Ana, recalls, "When I first watched him, I said to myself, 'My God, that's the greatest talent I've ever seen!' He was on springboard and his spring was so much higher than that of any other child his age, or even 13- and 14-year-olds. He was years ahead of his age group."
In 1975 Peter Louganis asked Lee if he would coach Greg, and how much he would charge. "I don't charge anything," said Lee. "I do it for love. But listen, he'll have to live up to these requirements: no smoking, no drinking, and I want my home pool cleaned regularly." That summer and fall, Louganis learned all the big 2½ and 3½ dives, but he was always cautious. Often, Billy Day, another pupil of Lee's, had to shame Greg into trying a new dive. For six months before the Montreal Olympics he lived at Lee's home, and when the Olympics came around, Lee expected a gold medal performance from his 16-year-old protègè. But there was one thing Lee hadn't been able to pass on to Greg—a killer instinct. "I wanted him to climb up to the tower thinking, 'I'll show you s.o.b.'s!' " Lee says. Then he adds, shaking his head, "When Greg loses, it doesn't seem to bother him."
In Montreal, as Louganis clutched his silver medal, he seemed overwhelmed by the commotion he had created. He has come a long way since then. Although he's still soft-spoken and becomingly modest, he can handle the press with poise and even a dash of mischievous-ness. A poolside interview at the recent indoor nationals went like this:
"Are you living at home now, Greg?"
"No, I have my own apartment." Pause. "And I'm living with a nice little girl."
"Oh? What's her name?"
"Maile. You know. Like the Hawaiian leaf."
"That's nice. How old is she?" Louganis had been seen with a succession of girls, but this was evidently a new one.
"She'll be 10 weeks tomorrow." Another pause. "She's a Great Dane."
Lee started the diving program at Mission Viejo. which had been known primarily as a powerhouse in swimming, and since he could not apply himself to the job full-time, he saw to it that O'Brien, a successful coach at Ohio State, was hired as Mission Viejo's head diving coach in 1978. O'Brien had first worked with Louganis when the boy came to his summer camp at the age of 15, a moody youngster who often refused to talk. O'Brien decided that making Greg a happier, more outgoing person would be his biggest challenge.
"I don't have to coach him technically as much as the other divers because of his ability level," says O'Brien. "My main job is to keep him relaxed. I joke a little. When he smiles, he dives well."
When he was looking over colleges in 1978, Louganis decided to accept a scholarship offer from Miami because it had an excellent drama program. So once again he was on stage, and in the fall of his sophomore year Frances Louganis traveled east to see her son in his first dramatic performance. The play was Equus. As well as having a bit part, Greg played Nugget, one of the horses. Attending a dress rehearsal, Frances heard her son say some things she had never allowed to be uttered in her house. "Everybody in the audience heard me gasp, and started laughing," she recalls, "but Greg never broke stride." Frances wound up seeing the play four times.
But Miami was a long way from El Cajon and Mission Viejo, and Louganis wanted to consolidate his training. He took last fall's semester off to work as an apprentice bartender in a Mexican restaurant at Anaheim. He also took a two-month leave from diving. "I needed the money," he says, "and I needed a rest."
In December he accepted a scholarship from the University of California at Irvine where he resumed his studies in January. A drama major, he is taking 22 units at Irvine, a load that will keep him out of competition until next month. "Ronnie and I have talked about this," he says. "If I'm going to continue until 1984, which I intend to do. I need a break. So this is the year when I can do what I want to do. I want to get involved in school, get to know people. I am new here. I don't know anybody. I'm glad I don't have to live and sleep diving this year. I have so many other interests."
Louganis' favorite classes are classical literature and dance. In his dance class he has discovered that ballet is far more demanding than tap, jazz or modern dance. It has been said that Louganis could have his pick of admiring girls anywhere. In ballet class, however, as he ruefully explains, he has to pick them up. "You pick them up," he says, "and you set them down, none too gently, and they land on your foot. I never lifted weights in my life, and now I am lifting partners. I am using muscles I never knew I had. A pas de deux is a lot harder than diving workouts. On tower I do a few dives and I'll be a little sore the next day. From a ballet session I come home dying, absolutely exhausted."
Louganis shares a two-bedroom apartment with Kevin Perry, a former art student who works for the phone company because he can no longer afford tuition. It is a simple place on a back street in Costa Mesa, a 20-minute drive from Irvine, 30 minutes from Mission Viejo, an hour and a half from home. The couch and armchairs are covered with newspapers because Maile, the Hawaiian leaf, acts more like the rambunctious Great Dane puppy she is than the "Mellow Maile" she is supposed to be. But she is something to come home to, "like a little daughter," says Greg.
Next month, Louganis will compete in the three-meter at the World Cup in Mexico City, where he expects to meet Portnov, and next year there will be the world championships in Ecuador. The Los Angeles Olympics are only three years away. Nobody has ever won both the springboard and tower at the world championships, and the only man to win the two events at an Olympics was Pete Desjardins of the U.S., way back in 1928.
"Greg has the ability to win both in a world championship, and in '84." says O'Brien. "Nobody is perfect, but when he's prepared and confident and smiling, he can come closer to being perfect than anybody has ever been."