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It's A Bird, It's A Plane, It's Supergreg!

Aug. 20, 1984
Aug. 20, 1984

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Aug. 20, 1984

The Olympics

It's A Bird, It's A Plane, It's Supergreg!

As usual, Greg Louganis of the U.S. was on a flight path all his own in the men's diving, but the women were full of surprises

That Greg Louganis was about to become the first man in 56 years to win Olympic springboard and platform diving titles at the same Games was exhilarating enough. But what was making Sunday's platform finals even more rousingly satisfying was that Louganis was completing his double so dramatically, in the manner of a champion, with a world-record point total within his reach and the most difficult dive in the sport, a reverse 3½ tuck, facing him. Louganis, diving's nonpareil, had crushed the opposition in the men's springboard final four days earlier, winning the gold medal by an astounding 92.10 points over second-place Tan Liangde of China. Here, having finally shaken off his top tower challengers, teammate Bruce Kimball and another Chinese, Li Kongzheng, he needed mere 4s and 5s from the seven judges on his 10th and final dive to win; to surpass his world platform mark of 688.05 points, however, he would have to score 7s and 8s. This would probably be the final dive of his international career. The crowd of 13,497 at the Olympic pool grew quiet.

This is an article from the Aug. 20, 1984 issue Original Layout

Louganis, 24, had always come through in pressure situations like this, as evinced by his 26 U.S., three world and four Pan Am titles. He'd even won a silver medal in platform at the 1976 Olympics at the age of 16. But Louganis has sometimes confided a fear of fierce competition, of intense pressure, of having to fight off bulldog rivals like Kimball. Louganis is by nature gentle, even shy, and he doesn't have a combative bone in his body. Since his start in diving as a 9-year-old, he has approached it as an art, complementing it with his studies in dance and theater. "My first coach, John Anders, taught me how to be graceful," says Louganis. "He taught me that diving should be like poetry—it should always be flowing." And so it always has been with Louganis. "He's smoother and he's stronger," says his current coach, Ron O'Brien, a member of the Olympic coaching staff in L.A. "On the hard dives it's especially noticeable. The other divers look like they're in a hurry. Greg looks like he's taking an easy stroll."

As he stood at the edge of the platform on Sunday, Louganis was thinking not about beating his rivals or his record—he literally didn't even know the score—but rather of the song Believe In Yourself from The Wiz. "I always set my dives to music," he has said. "Classical for the requireds and something more upbeat for the optionals. The one song I always sing is Believe In Yourself. I need that one. You know, you're really vulnerable up there. Everybody's sitting out there judging you—and that can be rough."

From the moment Louganis launched off his concrete stage, pulling his 5'9", 160-pound body into a tight tuck, it was clear that his final dive would be sweet music. He whirled through 3½ somersaults, straightened and pierced the water with nary a splash. The scoreboard showed five scores of 9, one 9.5 and a 10. Louganis had scored 92.82 points for the dive and an unheard-of 710.91 for the competition. To put it into perspective, consider that silver medalist Kimball, with the best showing of his highly successful career, finished 67.41 points behind, with 643.50. Li was third with 638.28. Consider, too, that if Louganis had received a 10 from every judge on every dive—had been absolutely, utterly perfect—his total would have been only 79 points higher. "I doubt this performance will ever be equaled," said Dr. Sammy Lee, 64, the 1948 and 1952 platform gold medalist. "It won't happen in my lifetime—or yours."

In the press tent afterward, Louganis slipped out from under an avalanche of superlatives with typical grace. He described how he'd calmed himself before his last dive: "I took Garvey, my teddy bear, to the bathroom and had a long talk." Explaining the peaceful smile he'd worn just before the dive, Louganis said, "I remember thinking, 'No matter what happens, my mother still loves me.' " Everyone loves him. "Greg is by far the best diver in the world," said Kimball, "and probably the best in history."

Thus ended an unpredictable week in which all seven U.S. divers got medals, yet only Louganis came away with gold. In the women's springboard competition, favorite Kelly McCormick, 24, daughter of four-time Olympic champion Pat McCormick, failed to follow in her mom's footsteps, going over too far on her usually dependable reverse 2½ somersault tuck and winding up second behind surprise winner Sylvie Bernier of Canada. McCormick seemed almost relieved by the outcome; a decidedly free spirit, she'd grown tired of all the comparisons with her mother. Though elated by her silver, she said she planned to put it where she keeps most of her other awards—at the bottom of a fish tank stocked with piranhas. "It's like buried treasure," she said.

The 20-year-old Bernier, a 5'3", 112-pound sprite, took an early lead and never looked back. She won for her clean entries and error-free dives. "It felt as easy as walking in the street," she said later, and it should have: Bernier has done the same list of dives for the past six years. "She isn't in the classical style, like the Russians and Bruce Kimball," says her coach, Donald Dion. "What they do, it's just mechanics—arms straight, hands closed. Sylvie is more like Louganis. What she does is make it look graceful and easy in the air."

The unexpected winner of the women's platform competition was an even tinier bird, 5'1", 92-pound Zhou Jihong of China. By surviving her slate of high-risk, high-reward dives, Zhou became her nation's first Olympic diving champion. "I believe back in China, they will all know my name," said Zhou, 19, who until now has been overshadowed by veteran teammate Chen Xiaoxia, fourth in the competition at L.A. "My teammate didn't compete to her potential. Normally she would be ahead of me," said Zhou, whose athleticism and beautiful smile might soon make the Chinese forget about Chen, their beloved 5'2", 99-pound Flying Sparrow. Not that Chen is eager to shoo Zhou: The two teammates embraced jubilantly after the medal ceremony, and the Flying Sparrow hoisted the Olympic champion into the air.

There were varied assessments of the frail but acrobatic Chinese divers, a long-awaited addition to the Olympic field. "The area in which they need to learn, maybe, is how to compete," said Louganis. "You come to the pool to work out and they're so good it's frightening."

O'Brien complimented them on, among other things, their stunningly rapid twists and somersaults. "They also have great entries," he said. "A lot of it is because they're so small. Their women also get a little better jump off the tower than ours, and their required dives are more consistent." When two of O'Brien's Mission Viejo (Calif.) Nadadores club divers, Michele Mitchell and Wendy Wyland, faced the Chinese in the platform finals, O'Brien tested the notion that the Chinese would crack under pressure. "I told them [Mitchell and Wyland], 'Put the pressure on them and let them respond,' " he said. But even as Mitchell and Wyland came in with a late surge, one that would bring them silver and bronze, respectively, Zhou held them off.

"What this proves is that they're very good, but we're still a little better," O'Brien concluded. "It's going to get tougher, though, when Louganis retires." That could happen after the U.S. nationals later this month. But, hey, at least for now the gold is already in the bank.

PHOTOOff the springboard, Louganis racked up 92.10 points more than his nearest rival.ILLUSTRATIONPHOTONo wonder Bernier is a model of consistency: She has done her dives for six years.PHOTOZhou did some avian stunts of her own off the tower to defeather the Flying Sparrow.PHOTOLouganis: first two-gold male since 1928.