Twenty-four years after his last competitive dive, Greg Louganis is once again perched on the edge of a 10-meter platform. There are no bleachers, no spectators, not even a pool. But that's definitely Louganis up there, the greatest diver in history. There's no mistaking that familiar dark complexion, but these days it's offset by his salt-and-pepper hair. He still goes head-to-head with his old friend gravity from time to time, but for the past year that battle has taken place on a trapeze.
This is an article from the July 9, 2012 issue
Louganis, still trim and muscular at age 52, swings from the platform to the catcher—the acrobat who hangs from a bar on the opposite end of the trapeze rig and grabs the flier during tricks—but Louganis consistently misses the bar when he tries to return to where he started. On his next turn he stands on the platform, closes his eyes and touches his index finger to his forehead in spontaneous meditation. The move comes from his longtime dedication to yoga, of tapping into the third eye as a means of connecting to a higher power. But again he misses and falls into the safety net. He lies for a second with his arms still reaching for the bar; then he lets them drop, heavy with frustration. If there is self-doubt, he wallows in it for only seconds before climbing down and shaking it off. He's shaken off much worse.
For more than a decade, beginning in the late 1970s, Louganis was the closest thing to perfection the diving world has witnessed, winning five world and 47 national titles, and most memorably four Olympic golds and one silver across three Games ('76, '84 and '88) by often eye-popping margins. But the singular image of Louganis's career was a decidedly imperfect dive at the Seoul Games. On Sept. 19, 1988, Louganis was leading the field in the three-meter springboard preliminaries after eight dives. His ninth would be a reverse 2½ pike, one of his best. He somersaulted once, twice and proceeded to unfurl into the pike when he clipped his head on the edge of the board and crumpled into the pool. His diving coach, Ron O'Brien, told Louganis that there would be no shame in calling it a career at that point, but 35 minutes later the 28-year-old was back at the base of the ladder. "I just wanted him to do a successful dive a good distance from the board," O'Brien remembers. "I didn't expect him to do the best dive in the whole contest." Louganis scored 87.12 on the dive, the highest score ever achieved in a qualifying round.
By the end of preliminaries Louganis had climbed into third place, and when the event wrapped up the following day, he would bow his head to accept his gold medal, in the process exposing the five stitches he had received. A week later in the 10-meter platform event he nailed a reverse 3½, one of the sport's most difficult maneuvers, to edge Chinese diver Xiong Ni by 1.14 points and become the only man to win golds in springboard and platform diving in back-to-back Olympics.
Louganis's mishap on the board took on added significance when his autobiography, Breaking the Surface, was published in 1995. Even more sensational than his revelation of a history of abuse—emotional from his father, physical and sexual from a partner—and his own battles with depression and addiction to alcohol and painkillers, Louganis announced that he was gay and HIV positive.
Despite his accomplishments and fame, Louganis had kept his distance from the public, as someone sensitive and reserved, and acknowledged his fans only with a shy smile. The months that followed his announcement were predictably tumultuous. He lost the backing of all but one of his corporate sponsors (Speedo stuck with him) and was deluged with criticism from the media and the general public for what many saw as recklessness in his decision not to disclose his disease to the USOC before the '88 Games. (Remember, this was at a time when there was a great deal of misinformation about how the AIDS virus could be spread. Louganis himself admits to having some concern after hitting his head.) "I was told that my coming out was horrible for diving, that it was a blemish on the sport," Louganis says.
He was especially hurt by the lack of contact from USA Diving in the years that followed his retirement from the sport. "I tried to give them the benefit of the doubt, thinking, Maybe it's jealousy because I dived against a lot of them and I beat them," he says. It wasn't until 2011 when USA Diving invited him to become an athlete mentor that Louganis started working with the organization again in an official capacity. And since early that year, he has also served as a vice president of the U.S. Olympians Association, a support network for former U.S. Olympic athletes. He has been especially busy in the months leading up to the London Games.
In his capacity as a coach, Louganis has worked on breathing exercises with divers such as David Boudia and Nick McCrory, who won the platform synchro event at the U.S. diving trials, and finished first and second, respectively, in the 10-meter platform on June 24. "Once they do [his breathing technique], they will say, Oh, my God, that was so much easier," Louganis says.
In retirement Louganis has dabbled in a number of different fields. He studied dancing and singing as a child and eventually majored in drama at UC Irvine. In 1993, Louganis played the role of Darius in Jeffrey, an off-Broadway hit comedy about three gay, HIV-positive men—and he's also appeared in a handful of movies and television shows. In March he made a cameo appearance as himself on the IFC sketch comedy show Portlandia. "I got this script and thought, I can have fun with this," he says. "I have a sense of humor, but most people don't know me." In the sketch he comes across a radical couple committed to keeping the Olympics out of Portland. Louganis appeals to their hipster sensibilities—"We're like the punkers of sports," he says—and changes their minds. In the two minutes he's on screen, Louganis nails the show's offbeat humor.
Louganis was not always comfortable being in the spotlight. As a kid, he hated when family members would pressure him to perform at gatherings. "'Show them your time step! Show them your cartwheels!' Like I was a trained seal," he says. "So instead, when family came over I'd go into the doghouse and curl up with the dog." His love of dogs (Louganis has a Jack Russell terrier named Dobby and a Hungarian Pumi named Hedwig) inspired him to indulge another of his passions: canine agility training. For 24 years, Louganis entered his own dogs and also taught others to compete in national competitions. "They've helped me find my strength," Louganis told PEOPLE magazine, "because it wasn't always there."
Today Louganis talks freely about the darker times in his life. "People will say, 'You made it easier for other people' and 'Oh, you had such a hard life,' but they were events that happened. I was raped, I was beat up," he says. "I could make that my story and say, Woe is me, but that's not who I am." Perhaps that's why Breaking the Surface reads more like a dispassionate timeline than a memoir. "I wrote that to let go of it," he says. "It's history."
Things still aren't perfect, however. In 2004 his mother, Frances, whom O'Brien calls "very much his cheerleader," died. "I had a little meltdown," Louganis says. In the throes of depression, Louganis locked himself in his house and downed one to two bottles of wine a day. At that point he also stopped taking his HIV meds, which led to a bout of shingles and a staph infection in his left leg that was so serious he barely escaped amputation. "I don't remember it; I was doped up so bad," he says. An arrest for DUI in 2006 was a wake-up call, and Louganis has been sober since.
His HIV has been kept in check by an assortment of treatments. "I've been in a lot of studies, been one of those statistics," he says of the years immediately following his diagnosis. "I did Norvir, gene therapy, a year's treatment of Interlochen, which is a chemotherapy type of thing." While he used to have to take AZT every four hours, around the clock, his treatments are significantly less demanding now. His T cells—the white blood cells that fight infection and are the primary target of the AIDS virus—are "higher than they've ever been," he says. Including vitamins and supplements, he now takes about 10 pills twice a day. "HIV is a part of me. It's something I live with," he says. Dr. Tony Mills, whose L.A. practice specializes in HIV care, has been treating Louganis for eight years and says that his virus levels, like those of many Americans receiving the most recent HIV treatment, are undetectable. "Every time I see him, I'm like, 'Have you had work done? You look great!' That usually doesn't happen as people get older," says Mills, laughing.
For years Louganis made a good living as a motivational speaker, but many of those opportunities dried up with the economic downturn. Now his Malibu home is in foreclosure. "I'm kind of scared about that," Louganis says. "But then again, whatever's going to happen will happen. I'm at peace with it."
O'Brien, who has maintained a father-son relationship with his former protégé, has noticed Louganis's new mind-set. "For whatever reason he's kind of reinvented himself," says O'Brien. "He's much more relaxed, talks more freely."
Last year, at the urging of a Hollywood stuntwoman friend, Louganis signed up for trapeze classes at a private home in the San Fernando Valley. Louganis attends when he can, and though he may be the best diver in history, no one mistakes him for the best trapeze artist in the class. "I dived for so long and at such a young age that I didn't know exactly what I did or how I did it. With trapeze, I'm learning how to learn," he says.
But watching Louganis rehash fundamentals is still worth the price of admission; a search for "Greg Louganis swan dive" on YouTube serves as proof. He takes another turn on the trapeze, and a classmate, a Pilates instructor who is engaged to a former professional trapeze artist, watches him soar overhead and sighs. "Everything is perfect," she says.
Louganis, a long-practicing yogi who signs off his e-mails with Namaste, says he's indeed at peace with all that's happened in his life. That's why his new sport, which allows him to fly on a trapeze rather than plummet into a pool, fits his new perspective well. He turns his hand over to show a nasty-looking cut on his palm. "Last time I was there, I ripped my hand open. Oh, and I hit my feet on the bar." He pauses and smiles, easily dismissing this minor setback. "I guess I need to get back up there."