For days after it happened no one could believe Greg Louganis had hit his head on the springboard on his ninth dive of the Olympic preliminaries. It was as if Baryshnikov had fallen off the stage or Rodin had slipped with his chisel and The Thinker's chin had plopped into his lap. "You have to treat this as a freak accident," said U.S. Olympic diving coach Ron O'Brien. "He's never close to the board in practice."
The crash occurred on a reverse dive with 2½ somersaults in the pike position. When Louganis took off from the board, he leapt so that he descended too close to it, and as he came out of his somersaults and straightened himself into the layout position—imagine someone standing at attention while horizontal in midair—he struck the end of the board with the top of his head and fell clumsily into the water. Louganis, who scored 6.3 on the dive, climbed out of Chamshil Indoor Swimming Pool rubbing his scalp and was given four temporary sutures, which were later replaced with five mattress stitches covered by a waterproof patch. "I jumped off the board and heard this big clank," Louganis said the next day. "That's my perception of the dive."
That clank began a dramatic 20 hours that would etch the Louganis name even more deeply into the granite of Olympic legend. History's best diver would face his greatest challenge with his head cut and his confidence shaken.
The sparse crowd at the Chamshil pool was, like the other divers and coaches, in shock as Louganis left the deck. Louganis was stunned too. "I honestly didn't realize I was that close," he said later. By a conservative estimate, Louganis has done 180,000 springboard dives in practice and competition in his 18-year career. But until this moment he had never hit his head on the board, although at a meet in Tbilisi, U.S.S.R., in 1979 he conked his head on the platform and was fished from the water, unconscious and unable to continue. "This was a little more difficult to overcome," he said of the Seoul accident, "because I had to go back up there right away."
After the temporary stitches were put in, Louganis took a walk with O'Brien, his longtime coach and confidant. "I said, 'Look, hockey players go into the locker room, get 50 stitches put in their face and head, then go back out in the game,' " says O'Brien. " 'You can do two dives.' " Louganis laughed and agreed.
Louganis had dropped from first to fifth in the preliminaries because of the mishap but was still in a safe position to make the top 12 and qualify for the next morning's final. He mounted the board to tremendous applause, launched into an extremely difficult reverse 1½ with 3½ twists and hit the dive almost perfectly. He was awarded 87.12 points, the most for any diver in the preliminaries. Louganis nailed his 11th and last dive to qualify third, well behind veteran rival Tan Liangde of China. The next day the 12 finalists would start anew, with no scores carried over.
The diving cognoscenti were abuzz. "Not in my day—and I've been in the sport 55 years—have I seen a big-time diver like Greg hit a board like that," said Sammy Lee, who won the Olympic platform title in 1948 and '52 and coached Louganis, then 16, to the silver on platform at Montreal in '76.
A few observers compared Louganis's accident with that of Micki King Hogue, now the U.S. team manager, who broke her arm when she hit the board in Mexico City at the '68 Games. Others, noting how lucky Louganis was, cited two divers who had died after striking their heads on the platform: Sergei Shalibashvili of the Soviet Union, who was killed at the 1983 World University Games in Edmonton, and Nathan Meade of Australia, whose fatal accident occurred in training last fall. Louganis has been asked ad nauseum about the two deaths, but he prefers not to discuss them. Shortly after Shalibashvili's death, Louganis studied a videotape of the accident to see what Shalibashvili had done wrong. Louganis identified the error and is careful to avoid it. That allows him to dive with peace of mind.
After finishing the preliminaries, Louganis went back to the athletes' village, where competitors from all sports and nations approached him to ask if he was O.K. "Every time I turned around, it was, 'How's your head?' " he said, chuckling, the next day. Louganis made himself a dinner of popcorn in the dorm lounge—having gained eight pounds of muscle since the 1984 Games, Louganis, now 5'9" and 168 pounds, has to watch his weight—and went to bed early. "He told me that he tossed and turned all night, thinking," said O'Brien. "I didn't ask what he was thinking about."
Louganis was up before six the next morning. Astonishingly, his neck wasn't stiff and his head didn't ache. "I think my pride was hurt more than anything," he said later. But there was some pain. "His jaw hurt from clenching when he hit," said his friend and business agent, Jim Babbitt, who had brought Louganis, an actor and dancer, movie scripts to read in his spare time. "He told me, I feel like I got punched out by Tyson.' "
Not unlike a KO'd boxer, Louganis had doubts. He took a bus to the Chamshil pool for a long warmup and, as O'Brien described it, "was really down. Usually when he comes in he's in a pretty happy frame of mind and he's joking. But this time he was very quiet. I knew he had some question marks."
Louganis confided his thoughts to O'Brien, who reminded Louganis that he had done the reverse 2½ hundreds of times without trouble. He explained the technical blunder Louganis had made—going straight up on takeoff instead of pushing out from the board—and put him through a 40-minute diving session that included three reverse 2½'s. "I landed out around the middle of the pool," Louganis jokingly said later.
The competition opened with the stands full and the mood tense. Through five rounds Louganis built up a nine-point lead on Tan, who had beaten him twice earlier this year.
Gradually the lead grew. Both Louganis and Tan were diving superbly, but Louganis looked sharper and more graceful. "The Chinese somersault faster," observed Lee. "They do gymnastics over water. Louganis does ballet."
Louganis opened a 20-point lead in Round 7 when Tan got a bit sloppy on—of all things—a reverse 2½. Louganis still led by almost 20 when it came time for his own reverse 2½ in Round 9. "I figured everybody was going to be watching that ninth dive very closely," he said. "It made me a little nervous."
Louganis stood on the board waiting for the whistle to tell him it was time to dive. The crowd was silent. He rubbed his face, slapped his thighs, looked out over the water. It's at times like this, before key dives, that he reassures himself by silently saying, "No matter how I do, my mother will still love me."
Louganis strode forward and flew out from the board—well out, in no danger of hitting it on the way down. The dive was very good, and it brought him scores between 8.0 and 9.0. The arena exploded with noise. Louganis climbed out of the pool and gave teammate Mark Bradshaw a high five.
Louganis came a bit close to the board on his 10th dive, but he wrapped up his victory by acing perhaps the most difficult springboard dive, a reverse 3½ tuck, on the final round. Tan was mathematically eliminated by the time he performed his last dive but still earned the silver medal with a total of 704.88 points. Louganis finished with 730.80, while bronze medalist Li Deliang of China was far back with 665.28.
"This was probably the hardest event to watch in my career because of the emotion and the uncertainty of what he would do on those last dives," said O'Brien. "He didn't have enough of a lead that I could say, 'Jump way out over the pool and play it safe.' "
It was without question the crowning performance of a brilliant career.
Louganis, who watched and applauded Chinese springboard wonder Gao Min as she won the women's gold on Sunday with a score of 580.23, 45.90 points more than second-place Li Qing of China and 47.04 ahead of bronze medalist Kelly McCormick of the U.S., said these Games would not necessarily mark the end of his career. He may dive in the one-and three-meter springboard events at next April's U.S. Indoor Nationals at his home pool in Boca Raton, Fla., in a bid to break swimmer Tracy Caulkins's record for most U.S. aquatic titles (48); Louganis has 47.
At the same time, he was reluctant to overstate his accomplishments. "No, I don't want to be remembered as the greatest diver who ever lived," he said. "I want to be able to see the greatest diver. I hope I live to see the day when my records are broken."
"We must all learn from Louganis's grit and determination," said Chinese coach Xu Yiming. "In adversity he was able to rise up and win the championship. We must emulate this kind of spirit. I am personally humbled."