Greg Louganis, the best diver in the world, winner of 26 U.S. titles, three world championships, one Olympic silver medal, four Pan Am golds, and the favorite in both the three-meter springboard and 10-meter platform events at the Los Angeles Games, climbs the ladder to the platform at the Marguerite Recreation Center in Mission Viejo, Calif. He walks to the edge of the metal platform and looks down at the water. It's a habit: Look before you leap; better safe than sorry.
Louganis isn't smiling, probably because it's nearly impossible to combine the intense concentration necessary to execute the reverse 3½ somersault tuck and a smile. For a moment he stands absolutely motionless on the edge of the platform, feet together, arms outstretched to form a T with his body—an eagle poised for flight. And then, in one fluid motion, he swings his arms around and up, leaps high above and away from the platform and forcefully expels his breath as he pulls himself into a tuck position, his legs folded tightly against his chest. The back of Louganis's head turns back toward the tower as he executes the first of the dive's 3½ somersaults, but his head clears the platform by at least two feet, and he tumbles effortlessly down, gracefully unfolds his body halfway through its fourth revolution, inhales sharply and pierces the water like a javelin.
All this takes less than two seconds. Though the dive, No. 307 C in the official rule book, is the toughest one done in competition off the tower, with a 3.4 degree of difficulty, Louganis's Mission Viejo teammate Dave Burgering says, "When Greg does it, he makes it looks so easy that anyone watching him thinks, That doesn't look so hard. I can do that' Other guys can do that dive, but they look like they're struggling. They complete the right number of somersaults, but Greg adds that beauty and grace. And that's not easy."
All week, during practice at the World University Games in Edmonton, Alberta last July, Soviet diver Sergei Shalibashvili had been coming dangerously close to the platform while doing the reverse 3½ tuck. Louganis (pronounced loo-GAIN-us) was in Edmonton to compete, as were teammates Megan Neyer and Wendy Wyland and their Mission Viejo coach, Ron O'Brien, who's also one of the two diving coaches for the U.S. Olympic team. Only Louganis, Shalibashvili and perhaps four other men had ever performed No. 307 C in competition. It was a new dive in the repertoire; the International Technical Diving Committee had approved 307 C along with five other dives as of Sept. 1, 1982. As the day of the men's tower competition drew closer, coaches and divers in Edmonton began turning away, unable to watch Shalibashvili practice 307 C.
July 17, 1984
"As he started up the ladder to do the dive in competition," says O'Brien, "I went into the trainer's room. I just couldn't watch. Wendy was standing in the doorway, looking out at the pool and I said to her, 'Tell me when he's going to go.' When she said, 'He's going now,' she ran into the room with me, and I closed my eyes and put my fingers in my ears."
There's an expression that American divers use when correcting a teammate in 10-meter practice. If a diver has been jumping out too far from the platform, they'll shout, "Kiss the tower!" which means bring the dive closer in. O'Brien and Wyland feared that Shalibashvili would literally kiss the tower.
Louganis was standing nearby on the seven-meter platform, which is part of the same structure as the 10-meter platform—his back to the water, his eyes closed, his hands over his ears, humming quietly to himself—when Shalibashvili leaped up and pulled into his tuck. But as he was beginning his second somersault, the back of his head struck the edge of the platform, fracturing his skull, and he fell 33 feet to the water below.
About half an hour after the unconscious Shalibashvili was removed from the pool, the competition resumed. A Canadian was up next. Then it was Louganis's turn. "I was going to do a back 3½," he says. "It's not as difficult as 307 C, but it's still pretty tough. In the next round I had to do my reverse 3½ tuck." Louganis, who had felt the tower shake when Shalibashvili hit, says, "I just blocked it out. If I'd had time to look at films and go through the whole emotional trauma, then it probably would have made me crazy. But I didn't. I had to get up there and do the same dive. I jumped out into the middle of the pool, but still I did the dive well."
Shalibashvili died of massive cerebral hemorrhage a week later. He was 21, two years younger than Louganis.
Louganis is as close to perfection in his sport as it's possible to be, and among all U.S. Olympic athletes, no one is a surer bet to win a gold medal in Los Angeles. Yet, it's difficult to say what makes Louganis so much better than his rivals. Diving is a complex sport, so filled with nuance that a description of every movement of even the simplest dive would read like a treatise on physiology and physics. And a dive happens so quickly, it's often hard to focus clearly on the major aspects of it. Still, some of the things that separate Louganis from mere mortals can be delineated:
For instance, what he did right on 307 C and what Shalibashvili did wrong can be found in the takeoff. At that point Louganis kept his shoulders directly above the edge of the platform and moved his center of gravity forward with his hips. As Shalibashvili was starting to go, he moved his shoulders backward and kept his hips in the same spot, because unlike Louganis he didn't, at least on this day, have the strength to hurl his body forward properly. "That meant his center of gravity moved back into the platform," says O'Brien. "You're supposed to thrust your pelvis forward and arch your back. You can do that configuration and be traveling backward or forward. It's where you set your balance." The Soviet swung his arms through and arched into the same position as Louganis had, but because he didn't move his center of gravity forward enough, he struck his head.
Louganis, who had dived against Shalibashvili for 10 years, feels that a contributing factor to the tragedy may have been the distance his Soviet rival had to travel from the U.S.S.R. to Canada. In other words, jet lag. "He had done the dive successfully and, from what I understand, very well in an international meet in Minsk three months earlier," says Louganis. "But he went through this massive time change, and culture shock, and his body probably didn't have time to adjust to it all. Your equilibrium is off, and you're not as strong as you think you are."
Neyer disagrees: "Contrary to what Greg says, I don't think Shalibashvili had the capability to do that dive. I don't think he was strong enough. If I'd been his coach, I wouldn't have allowed him to do it."
O'Brien regrets the image the tragedy gives his sport. "People still come up to me and ask, 'Were you there?' " he says. "To my knowledge, it's the first fatality in the 80 years or so of competitive diving or supervised practice on this continent. Diving gets a bad name because of all the unsupervised people who dive into shallow water."
If there's one person who gives diving a good name—whose name, in fact, has come to be synonymous with diving excellence—it's Louganis. For openers, he's so gorgeous, all he has to do is show up at a meet and he's one or two points ahead of the competition. In his case, pretty not only is, pretty also does. "They say the judges start at 10 [the maximum score for each dive] and then work their way down," says O'Brien. "So when other divers show up they're minus one or two from the 10-point level because of body build, which means that even if they do an outstanding dive, the best they can score is eight or nine. You have to be pretty. Diving is aesthetic; it's an art form."
Louganis's body is lithe and symmetrical, and it's all muscle. His stomach looks like a washboard, not only because of the tremendous amount of abdominal exercise he does, but also because he has such a low percentage (7%) of body fat. That allows his muscles to show through. "That percentage is like a world-class sprinter's," says O'Brien. "The only people who go any lower are people like marathon runners and cross-country skiers." Louganis is so muscular that when a nurse tried to give him an injection in the buttock before his appendectomy in 1983, the needle bent at a 45-degree angle. Louganis never felt a thing.
But do these muscles come from untold hours on a Nautilus machine, and endless sit-ups? Hardly. Louganis, who has done light weight training only once, for six weeks in the fall of 1983, doesn't exercise any more than his teammates. "You look at guys who lift weights two or three times a week," says Burgering, "and they don't look anything like Greg." The fact that he's been taking dance lessons since he was 1½ might account for some of those muscles—and some of his grace and flexibility—but in the end, like Mt. Everest, they're simply there.
Louganis's strength was demonstrated in 1983 during physiological testing at the University of California at Irvine's Human Performance Laboratory, where he recorded phenomenal leg-strength measurements—comparable to sprinter-long jumper Carl Lewis's—and performed a 30-inch standing vertical jump. Further, a biopsy of vastus lateralis muscle tissue of the thigh revealed that his muscles contained 70% white, or fast-twitch, fiber, which is the sort of percentage found in a first-rate sprinter. That percentage of fast-twitch fiber may account for Louganis's explosiveness off the board and his agility in executing the more difficult dives.
Not only can Louganis jump higher than any other diver off both the platform and the springboard, but he also sacrifices less of his vertical lift to takeoff or spin. For instance, a back pike dive off the platform would probably come as close as any dive to requiring Louganis's maximum jump, though even in that dive he wouldn't reach 30 inches vertically, because he must jump both up and away at the same time. In a more typical example, when doing the reverse 3½, he jumps about 24 inches vertically, which means he gives up six inches of his jump to develop his rotation. But, get this, even if there were another diver who had a 30-inch vertical jump, because that diver would not have Louganis's overall body strength, he'd still probably get no more than 18 inches in height while developing the rotation he needs.
The height Louganis gets off the three-meter springboard is also breathtaking. On his forward dives, he adjusts the fulcrum of the board all the way back to nine, the setting that gives the most spring. (Boards are adjustable from one, fastest, to nine, slowest; the farther back the fulcrum, the slower the board, meaning the longer it takes for the board to bend down and come back up.) A slow board has more spring, but it's also much harder to control. Louganis has a textbook "hurdle," the term for the jump to the end of the board that leads into the takeoff. He has perfect body alignment; there's a straight line from his foot on the board to his upraised arms. And the straighter the body line and the stronger and more rigid the body, the more projection a diver gets off the board. "If you pull a board down and put a steel rod on it," says O'Brien, "the steel rod will get the maximum spring from the board, because it has no give to it. All the energy that's in the board will go right through the steel rod and throw it about 10 miles into the air. But if you put a semirigid rubber tube on the board, a lot of the energy will be absorbed by the tube. Greg is the steel rod, and everybody else is that rubber tube, or some form of rubber tube."
The second time the board is sprung is called the takeoff, the point at which the diver leaves the end of the board, leaping off both feet. The hurdle and takeoff are closely interrelated: the higher the hurdle, the faster a diver comes down on the end of the board and the farther the board bends. And the more the board bends, the more it's going to spring. Most divers depress the board 28 to 30 inches, from three to six inches less than Louganis. Thus he gets extra height off the board, which gives him more time to execute a dive. For instance, when he does a reverse 2½ somersault pike, his hips at the top of the dive are 8½ feet above the level of the springboard—or about 2½ feet above the five-meter platform that's often located adjacent to the springboard. "You take your ordinary, mortal," says O'Brien, "and he'll be maybe two or three feet lower at the top of this dive. That puts him in a rush to the water with no time to adjust for any mistakes."
Louganis's strength, flexibility and concentration, astonishingly enough, also allow him to correct an error in mid-dive. Most divers "miss," as they say when they foul up a dive, because they're analyzing what they did wrong while they're in the air. They think, "Oh God, what a lousy takeoff" or "I'm falling back" or "Help! I'm too close," and while engaged in all this cogitation they forget what they're doing and blow the dive. Louganis has the ability to "pull a dive out of his suit," i.e., to make changes in midair. "Sometimes I laugh at myself in the middle of a dive," he says, "because I didn't do something I should've and I have to compensate for it. The laugh is mostly a release of tension. A reverse 3½ isn't the easiest of dives, and there's a certain amount of fear there, so I tell myself to relax and get my arms through on the takeoff, but then I'm out too far toward the middle of the pool, and I think, 'Oh, God, here we go again!' But I know what to do to still get the dive in."
Not only can Louganis make corrections in the middle of a dive, but he also can make corrections before he even gets to the board, a feat of concentration he learned as a child. "This goes back to when I was three years old," he says. "I was taking dance class, and the teacher realized that because our bodies weren't fully developed, we physically weren't capable of going through the dance routine every time. So she'd tell us to lie on the floor, and she'd dim the lights. Then she'd put on the music, and we had to picture doing the routine, step by step. There were a lot of times when I'd raise my hand and tell her that I had to go back, because I'd missed a step in my mind. I didn't leave the room until I could do the routine flawlessly in my head. That thinking just carried over into diving."
Another possible carryover from those dance classes is Louganis's flexibility, which, among other things, allows him to accelerate his spin when he needs to. Take an inward 2½ somersault pike: If he's spinning too slowly at the start of the dive, he can pull into an incredibly tight pike position, speed up the revolutions and ensure himself the time he needs to execute a good entry. If you sit close to the diving pool, you can even hear him grunt with effort as he pulls himself into a tighter tuck or pike. From 40 or 50 feet away, you don't hear a thing; he looks as if he's just floating through the dive, as if he's not working hard at all. "That grunt is a bit like the one they use in the martial arts," says O'Brien, "where they tell you that when you're going to make a move, you also should make a noise as you breathe out. Haaah!!!! Greg expels his breath and that way gets more force into his movement. Then, when he comes out of the tuck or pike, he breathes in, lifts his stomach muscles in and his diaphragm up." Breathing in deeply gives Louganis a nice, long line on his entry and it also allows him to stretch his body farther than any other diver can. A diver's body is often still finishing the final rotation of the dive as it hits the water, and the longer the body length, the more that rotation can be slowed for a clean, splashless entry.
Lest anyone assume that Louganis is a godlike creature with nary a flaw, let it be known that he isn't perfect off the platform and usually wins by only 10 to 40 points (out of 600 to 700). This can be blamed in part on the fact that now that he has matured, he's bulkier in the upper body, which gives him a problem with splashless entries. Even at the conclusion of a perfectly executed dive, more bulk displaces more water, thus creating a bigger splash. Louganis's major rivals off the tower at the Olympics will be the U.S.'s Bruce Kimball, 21, and the Chinese, particularly Li Kongzheng, 25, who are all smaller and slighter than the 5'9", 160-pound Louganis. Still, when Louganis gets beaten, it's not because somebody was truly better, it's, because, for some reason or other, Louganis has messed up a dive. If he dives at or near the top of his form, no one can surpass him.
Last, and least, Louganis is just a teeny bit...well, bowlegged. When he puts his legs together, there's a small gap between his knees and ankles. Though his bowlegs may slightly diminish his appearance, they also work to his advantage when he does pike dives. When spinning in the pike position, Louganis employs the water as a "spot," as dancers, figure skaters, divers and the like call the point of reference they use to keep from getting dizzy and/or disoriented when they're spinning. And how can he see the water when he's in a pike position? Why, he peeks between his bowlegs. "If his legs were straight," says O'Brien, "he'd be in trouble." Other divers must keep their head up higher and look over their feet. For Louganis, even flaws have a positive side.
The men's Olympic springboard finals are on Aug. 8, and springboard is where Louganis is supreme. In the past, his scores off the board have ranged anywhere from 50 to 120 points better than those of his closest rivals. The highest score Louganis has ever made is 755.49; his goal is 800. There will be five required springboard dives at Los Angeles, with a total degree of difficulty of not more than 9.5, and six optional dives, with no limit on the degree of difficulty. Given Louganis's program, if he were to get perfect scores (all 10s) from the seven judges on every dive, he'd have an 852 total off the springboard. (In scoring, the judges' highest and lowest marks for each dive are thrown out, and the remaining scores are multiplied by the degree of difficulty of the dive, and that total is multiplied by three-fifths.) The optionals, the most difficult and spectacular dives on the program, are the ones to watch for on Aug. 8. Here are a couple of Louganis's especially testing numbers off the springboard:
•No. 5337 D, a reverse 1½ somersault with 3½ twists; degree of difficulty, 3.3. Louganis has a very fast and tightly wound twist during which he streamlines his body, leaving nothing sticking out. In a twist, the axis of rotation is a straight line running through the body from head to toe, and the closer a diver can bring everything to that axis, the better he'll do. An elbow protruding, the head bent sideways, an arch or bend in the body, all slow down the twist. Nobody else twists as tightly on 5337 D as Louganis does.
•No. 307 C, the reverse 3½ somersault tuck; degree of difficulty, 3.5. This is the dive that killed Shalibashvili on platform, performed off the springboard. It has the highest degree of difficulty of any Olympic dive, platform or springboard, and Louganis is the only diver who will attempt it in Los Angeles. The reason the dive has such a high d.d.—remember it's only a 3.4 off the platform—is that there's less time to execute it off the board. There's also a fear factor, because you have to keep the dive close to the board, and Louganis has a tendency to jump out a little too far. "He's a bit hesitant about it," says O'Brien. "But as the Olympics draw closer, and the urgency of doing it right becomes greater, he'll bring it in the way he should. He'll stand up and go for it."
The men's Olympic platform finals are on Aug. 12, and the only other diver who has as tough a list of optional dives as Louganis is Li. In fact, Li's six optional dives are exactly the same as Louganis's. There are also four required dives, with a total degree of difficulty of not more than 7.6. Louganis's goal on platform is to score 700 points; his career high is 687.90. Here are a couple of Louganis's optional dives to look for on tower:
•No. 307 C, the reverse 3½ somersault tuck, 3.4 degree of difficulty. Mechanically, Li does this dive as well as Louganis does it, but he just doesn't look as good. Actually, Li in some ways is better at this dive than Louganis—he gets into a tighter tuck and spins faster—but he doesn't jump as high as Louganis does, and despite his faster spin, his motions are jerky and quick, while Louganis's are smooth and flowing. Li also doesn't have as good a toe point on entry—he tends to flatten his feet—and he sometimes misses his angle and throws too much splash. But aren't the judges going to watch Li and admire how much tighter and faster he spins? And aren't they going to notice that Louganis spins more slowly? "No," says O'Brien. "They're going to see Greg and think, 'Oh my gosh, look how high he jumped!' And the next thing they'll think is, 'That dive's almost impossible to do, but he does it so smoothly, it doesn't look like he's working very hard.' And the last thing, as he goes into the water, they'll see that beautiful leg and toe line. They'll think, 'What a great finish!' "
•No. 207 C, a back 3½ somersault tuck; 3.3 degree of difficulty. This is identical to the 307 C except that the diver starts with his back to the water. It's easier than its degree of difficulty indicates, because a diver can spin faster when moving backward. "Also," says Louganis, "unlike the reverse 3½, where you don't really know where you are in the first somersault, you can use the top of the tower to spot on the first spin, and the water on the other 2½ somersaults." Another advantage is that it's almost impossible for the diver to hit the platform in the 207 C
O'Brien has calculated that Louganis will have to average 9.4 points a dive on springboard to reach 800, and 8.9 points a dive to attain 700 on platform. A tall order considering that 10 is a perfect score. Just once has Louganis scored all 10s on a dive—at the 1982 World Championships in Guayaquil, Ecuador, when he aced an inward 1½ somersaults off the platform. Only Mike Finneran, at the '72 U.S. Olympic trials in Chicago, has scored all 10s from the tower.
"Scoring 800 on springboard and 700 on platform are my goals," Louganis says, "but they don't have to come at the Olympics. My aim there is to win two gold medals."
When you're as good as Louganis, it's nice to have some goals to keep you going.
THE DANGER POINT OF NO. 307 C
In this most difficult of dives, a diver does 3½ somersaults in the 33 feet from platform to water, but the crucial moment is just before the takeoff when he must thrust his hips out, moving his center of gravity forward (to the blue line) as well as up, so that in the second somersault his head safely clears the edge of the platform. Shalibashvili's mortal error came when he shifted his shoulders—and therefore his center of gravity—a bit back in to the platform.
THE UPS AND DOWNS OF DIVING
Louganis, who can do a 30-inch standing vertical jump—three more than most top-flight divers—will wow the Olympic judges with the height he gets off the platform. His great body strength also allows him to depress the board as many as six inches farther than other divers. That gives Louganis much more spring in a board takeoff and, again, more height than any rival.
THE MAN OF FLEXIBLE STEEL
Many years of dance training gave Louganis the flexibility to get into a very tight pike (above), and his bowlegs afford him an advantageous peek at the outside world. Less fortunate divers must thrust their head forward into what O'Brien calls an "E.T. position" so that they can see. Louganis's perfect body alignment (below) and strength turn him into a steel rod off the springboard.
HIGH AND MIGHTY
Louganis is all but unconquerable off the springboard in part because he jumps higher than his rivals and, thus, has more time to execute the elements of a dive. Shown here at the top of a reverse 2½ pike, his hips are eight to nine feet above the board and 2½ feet higher than the adjacent five-meter tower.
BIG TWIST AND LITTLE SPLASH
In a twist, Louganis tightens and streamlines his body as much as possible, which allows him to turn very fast. Nearing the end of a dive, he inhales, totally stretching his body, and spreads his hands to punch a large "hole" in the water, permitting his muscular upper torso to enter the pool with as small a splash as possible. Other top divers lock one hand on top of the other and punch their "hole" with one palm.