On Thursday evening, after a 14-hour flight from Seoul and a couple of hours of preparation, Greg Louganis found himself facing a performance that offered challenges quite different from those he had encountered in winning two Olympic gold medals in diving. "I'm scared," he said. "Truly scared." Dressed in a tuxedo made for him in Seoul, Louganis, who graduated from UC Irvine with a degree in drama and who plans to pursue an acting career, was about to host a new syndicated TV show being filmed at the Improv, a West Hollywood comedy club. Finally, the moment of truth arrived.
"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen," said Louganis to a live audience of 175 or so. "It's great to be here. I had a little problem on the way here this evening—T hit my head backstage...." The packed house erupted, and several members of the crowd held up cards displaying marks of 10.5. The man in the tuxedo broke into a broad smile.
That onstage stint wrapped up more than a week of contrasts for the 28-year-old Louganis. A few times there had been tears in his eyes. As he began the Olympic 10-meter platform final on Sept. 27, he knew it would likely be the last platform competition of his life, and his emotions were welling. It had been a rough Games for him, what with gashing his head during the preliminaries of the springboard competition, developing a sore left shoulder, coming down with sinusitis and—most important—having to bear the burden of expectations. Never mind his heroic performance in getting the springboard gold with five stitches in his scalp; he had to win his second event, too. "A reporter told me that if I didn't win both springboard and platform, I'd be considered a failure," he said. "A failure."
As Louganis stepped to the platform for his 10th and final dive, he stared that failure squarely in the face. He had led after the first four dives, but had fallen behind a wonderful Chinese competitor literally half his age—a 14-year-old named Xiong Ni—after the fifth round. Louganis regained the lead in Rounds 6 and 7, only to have Xiong pass him in the next two rounds. Now Louganis had to nail a reverse 3½ somersault, the most difficult dive on his list. He needed at least 85.57 points to earn the gold. If he did so, he would become the first man to repeat as Olympic champion in both springboard and platform.
October 9, 1988
Louganis hadn't been entering the water cleanly. He had scored well because of his strong, high leaps off the tower and his grace in the air, but at times even those facets of his performance had been slightly below his usual standard. "Greg knew he was struggling," said his coach, Ron O'Brien, afterward. "He doesn't keep track of the score, so I told him he was still right in there. I said, 'It's going to be a fight, but you've got good dives left.' "
Louganis still didn't know how the score stood as he waited to take his last dive. He had, in fact, entered the final round only three points behind Xiong, but Xiong, in his 10th dive, had spun through a superb inward 3½ (degree of difficulty: 3.2), entered the water with hardly a splash and was awarded scores ranging from 7 to 9. Later, Chinese team officials would quietly complain that Xiong had been scored too low on some of his dives. They may have been right.
But no one could take anything away from Louganis's final moment of brilliance. He reminded himself that his mother would love him, win or lose.
The dive was magnificent. Louganis pierced the water straight and true, and climbed out of the pool smiling. The pressure was off. He had dived as well as he could.
The scoreboard flashed a 9.0, five 8.5's and an 8.0. Because of the high degree of difficulty (3.4) of a reverse 3½, Louganis had scored 86.70 points and had beaten Xiong 638.61 to 637.47. The crowd at Chamshil Indoor Swimming Pool roared.
Louganis burst into tears and collapsed into O'Brien's arms. "I've never seen him so emotional," O'Brien said later. "I had to hold him up."
As they embraced, O'Brien whispered to Louganis: "Klaus Dibiasi had to hit his last dive at the 1976 Olympics to beat you." Louganis would smile at the thought later. He had been 16 when he challenged two-time defending Olympic platform champion Dibiasi at the Montreal Games and had come away with the silver medal. Now Xiong was the kid, the heir apparent. "I understand what Klaus Dibiasi felt like," said Louganis with a chuckle.
Louganis explained that he had broken into tears not because he had won, but because his platform career had come to an end. There may have been a sense of relief involved, too, after that reverse 3½. As O'Brien put it, "I don't know that there's ever been a bigger dive done in Olympic history."
For Louganis, who on Monday announced his retirement not only from platform but also from springboard competition, the timing was perfect.