Greg Louganis, the actor, stood at the top of the tower and peered down at the waiting water 10 meters below. This was a role he was born to play: the final dive, a reverse 3½ somersault in the tuck position, the most difficult dive performed, and only near perfection would bring him a national championship. With grace, Louganis soared from the tower. With grace, and barely a ripple, he whispered into the water. And with grace, he learned that the dive had been not quite good enough.
"I am only human," the 27-year-old Olympic champion said with a small grin. "I've been proving that all week."
It had been a long week for Louganis, who came into the Phillips 66/U.S. Diving Indoor Championships in Baton Rouge as the defending champion in all three men's events and with a mind-boggling cache of 41 national titles during his 11-year career. No one else has come close to that record; no one probably ever will. But when he left Saturday for this week's World Cup diving championships in Amersfoort, Holland, the record still sat at 41.
On Thursday he finished second to Mission Bay Makos teammate Doug Shaffer in the one-meter springboard event. Shaffer dived well, but Louganis missed one key dive—a reverse 1½ in layout in which he was penalized severely for descending dangerously close to the springboard. "I looked down, and there was the board, under my head." he said. "I don't know how I missed it."
By the thin margin of 10 points after 11 dives, Louganis had lost only his second one-meter U.S. championship in 18 indoor and outdoor competitions dating back to 1978. It was after the one-meter competition that the double-gold medal winner at the L.A. Olympics first mentioned that he was, popular belief to the contrary, mortal.
"I'm not the only person diving," said Louganis, who last year played the part of a womanizing beach bum in the as-yet-unreleased movie Dirty Laundry. "There are other people out there." Since his 1984 Olympic triumphs he has also been busy with commercials and speaking appearances.
To keep from psyching himself out during the one-meter finals, Shaffer, a 23-year-old UCLA graduate who was 0 for 15 in U.S. national championship finals, spent his time between dives reading J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. Like most divers, he prefers not to know what the competition is doing. "You start thinking about how well they are doing and you forget about your dive," Shaffer said. "That can get to you. Yeah, I think you can say this was an upset. But I wouldn't say it was impossible. It's not like Greg was never going to lose."
On Friday night another teammate, Kent Ferguson, defeated Louganis in the three-meter springboard, an event that Louganis had lost only once on a national championship level since the U.S. Outdoors in 1978. Like Shaffer, Ferguson dived well; and as on the night before, Louganis missed his closer, a reverse 3½ in the tuck position. Descending, at a 45-degree slant, he entered the water the way a three-year-old enters a bathtub—with a great splash. Louganis had needed 65.89 points on the dive to win; he got only 49.35 when the judges hit him with 4's and 5's.
In Tuesday's preliminaries, Ferguson, a taller-than-average (6 feet) diver, had finished 10th, which, as a student of psychology (his major at graduation from Michigan in 1985), he figured put him in the perfect position to win that evening. "I could do my dives and then go off somewhere," Ferguson said. "I wasn't forced to watch my competition."
Although he knew he was leading after his final dive, a reverse 1½ somersault with 3½ twists, in which he scored 7½'s and 8's, he didn't watch Louganis's final dive. Ferguson had found himself in the same position at last year's national outdoors, when he was leading and Louganis needed 7's to win. "I told Greg I'd rather not know," he said. "So I went into the bathroom. He got 9's."
This time Ferguson went halfway down the deep-pool area and stared at the deck. When he looked up, he was a national champion. "At first I couldn't believe it," he said. "People had always said I was too nice a person to win a national title; that only poor losers made good winners."
In diving, the top finishers are presented with their medals at ground level, and then each climbs aboard his respective pedestal. Ferguson was so elated by his championship he climbed the victory stand first, leaving a startled official on the ground with his medal. Laughing, Ferguson jumped down to pick up his award. When Ferguson returned to his perch, Louganis leaned over to him and said, "You just proved nice guys can win in this sport."
"That really made me feel good," Ferguson said.
In the women's competition, the one-meter was won by Kim Fugett, 23, an Ohio State senior who said simply that all she tried to do was land on her head. The three-meter championship went to Megan Neyer, who edged Kelly McCormick of McDonald's Divers on the last dive, 494.40-491.10. And Michele Mitchell successfully defended her platform title by finishing just ahead of Wendy Wyland.
The men's 10-meter platform finals on Saturday produced Louganis's third straight second-place finish, this one to Matt Scoggin, a 23-year-old University of Texas senior. As Louganis piled up an impressive score in the opening five compulsory dives, Scoggin appeared out of contention after an extremely poor fifth dive, an armstand cut-through reverse with 1½ somersaults. He splashed in heavily for scores of 4's and 4½'s. "When I climbed out of the water I felt like retiring," he said. "But that just made me mad—and relaxed."
At that point, Louganis led Scoggin 266.55-204.57. For his next five dives, Scoggin scored only 8½'s and 9's; his last two were pure 9's. When Louganis could only muster 8's on his final dive, the U.S. had its third new national champion.
Hardly had Louganis toweled off when he searched out Jim Babbitt, his business manager. "Cut all my personal appearances," he ordered. "I'm going back into diving full-time."
The Olympic hero had accepted his losses with grace and goodwill. But that didn't mean he intended to let it become a habit.