Interview with Greg Louganis
The former Olympic diving champion talks about growing up, winning gold medals and living with HIV.
Most athletes are seen as gods—untouchable and way above normal people, especially your average teenager. Take Greg Louganis, a three-time Olympic diver, who won four gold medals and a silver medal. He won 47 U.S. National Diving Championships, and, at the 1982 World Championships, became the first diver in a major international meet to receive a perfect 10 from all seven judges. He was also the first diver to receive more than 700 points in a diving competition, and still holds that honor today.
What many don’t realize is that every great athlete was once a teenager, and experienced the same problems as the rest of us, and sometimes even greater ones. It was fascinating to sit down with Louganis and learn from a man who has made mistakes in his life, faced dramatic challenges, and not only lived through them, but come to terms with himself. Louganis realizes that his past experiences make him the person he is today, and although he wouldn’t wish his life on anyone else, he knows it’s why he is completely comfortable in his own skin to this day.
Louganis had nowhere near an average childhood. He has been through hell, which includes being sent to juvenile hall for beating his mother, getting raped at knifepoint, struggling through school with dyslexia, and enduring many abusive relationships. But that is not all.
Since his first Olympic competition at 16 years old, the media made Louganis out to be a sexy, single and available athlete whom women craved. In truth, he is gay, and, just before the 1988 Olympics began, Louganis found out he was HIV positive. Given the fear surrounding the disease at that time, and the ignorance of how the disease was transmitted, Louganis was afraid to go public with the news. (Magic Johnson didn’t announce he was HIV positive until 1991.) During those games, he struck his head on the diving board, received stitches in his scalp, and went out only 35 minutes later to successfully complete his next dives and go on to win a gold medal. However, in that interval, he struggled with whether or not to tell the doctors about his HIV positive status, as they were tending to his open wound without wearing gloves. He did not.
In 1994, Louganis finally came out because an ex-lover was blackmailing him. When he announced that he was gay and later that he was also HIV positive, the public was shocked, and many people were outraged. He received a lot of criticism for not coming forward earlier about his condition, even though he confirmed that no one had been infected. To this day, he still receives criticism, for both his HIV status and his sexuality.
However, Louganis does not let that bother him. Today he does motivational speaking on a variety of topics, including the focus and determination needed in sports and in life. He stays competitive by training dogs for agility competitions and has one of the top Jack Russell Terrier competitors in the world.
I had an opportunity to interview this complex and fascinating athlete about his struggles and accomplishments, both on and off the diving board.
L.A. Youth: You have achieved success as a diver, an actor, an AIDS activist and a dog trainer. What is it like to be Greg Louganis?
I think that your question kind of sums it up. Everybody is just so complex and has so many interests, and that’s truly who I am as a person. I love my dogs. I got a lot of notoriety in diving, so that has given me a platform, so to speak, for a lot of other issues. Growing up dyslexic and not being diagnosed until I was in college, I didn’t even understand dyslexia until I was given it as a vocabulary word in my freshman English class. That was when I realized I was dyslexic, and so school was rather difficult. When I was in high school, junior high and grammar school it was difficult, because I knew there was something wrong as far as learning, but I didn’t know what it was. I mean, being HIV (positive), coming out with my autobiography, coming out as my sexuality, and coming out with all of my relationship issues and that sort of thing gave me a place to be heard.
What was the hardest thing to admit in your book Breaking the Surface?
Probably the most difficult thing to admit in my book was being in an abusive relationship, because people don’t know what goes on behind closed doors. Also, it’s not real “manly” to admit to being in an abusive relationship, being raped, or anything like that.
In your book, you talk a lot about your abusive relationships and drug use. How hard was it for you to have your family read it?
(Laughing) Fortunately, my dad had passed by then. We didn’t always have the best relationship, but I took care of him the last six weeks of his life. He died of cancer, and that was a really important time for both of us, to be able to heal and to talk about things, and it became a fight for life. I looked after him, and his struggles with his medications and therapies, and he asked what my [HIV] drug regimen was, how I was doing, how my numbers were, and that sort of thing. [Numbers refers to the T-cells (a specific type of blood cell). A healthy person has a T-cell count around 700-1,000. For a person with HIV “normal” is anything over 500. When their T-cell count falls below 200, a person is considered to have AIDS]. It was a very healing time. My mother went on book tour to a lot of places with me, and she was really proud of the book. There were a lot of friends that were afraid for my safety, as there was a lot of fear in 1995, about HIV… I got a lot of flack for not coming forward in ’88 about my HIV status, but what people don’t realize is that in 1988, there wasn’t a lot of education about HIV, there was a lot of fear.
In 1986, a teenager named Ryan White, who was a hemophiliac, contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion, and was therefore not allowed to attend school. How did he influence your life?
He was incredible. I mean, growing up dyslexic, if somebody told me I didn’t have to go to school, I’d say, “Great, fine with me,” (Laughing). But here was this kid who fought for his right to go to school even though he was dealing with HIV. It took an incredible amount of strength, I thought, and wisdom for a young kid. I think the first time I met him he was 15 years old, so that was pretty incredible. And also, Jeanne White, his mom, has one of my medals¬– the springboard event when I hit my head on the diving board. One of my thoughts, in between hitting my head and doing the next dive, was that my coach approached me, and said, “You have a great career to look back on, no one would fault you for packing up and going home.” But in my mind, I was thinking, “What would Ryan do?” He would just fight through, and that’s basically what my decision was, fight through. Fortunately I hit my head in the prelims, so I came back the next day and put it together and won.
In the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, when you struck the back of your head on the springboard, you got the stitches without anesthetics, and you went on to win the gold medal. But you said that wasn’t the defining moment of your life. What do you consider the defining moment of your life?
I don’t really view myself as having a defining moment in my life. There are so many moments as far as my life experience that are a part of me. I don’t think any one moment can really define any person. The one thing that I will say that a lot of people ask is what achievement I am most proud of, and a lot of people expect Olympic medals or something like that. But the one I am most proud of is my book, Breaking the Surface, because on book tour I had people coming up and saying that I changed their life, and that’s making a difference. That’s what I feel life is about, making a difference in somebody’s life. People would come up and say that they were in an abusive relationship and that the book gave them the courage to leave, it gave them the courage to fight ahead dealing with HIV. A lot of individuals told me that they used my book to come out to their parents about their sexuality, and they used my book to come out to their parents sometimes about their HIV status. So that’s really making a difference, and that’s probably something I’m most proud of.
Fortunately, none of the other divers or doctors were diagnosed with HIV after the accident. How would your life have been different if someone else had contracted the disease?
That was something that I got a lot of flack for in 1995, not coming forward, and especially not letting the doctors know. But like I said, you also had to consider the times– that was 1988. Dr. James Puffer was the team doctor, and he’s the guy that sewed my head up, so he was the only one that was really exposed to the blood, and it has to be blood-to-blood contact [for HIV to be transmitted from one person to another]. There was a lot of debate on how you contract HIV, and also how you don’t contract HIV, which is really important, because you’re not going to get it through a contaminated pool. The virus isn’t really that healthy, so it has to be a blood-to-blood transfer, so after Dr. Puffer sewed my head up, my coach went up to him and shook his hand, and thanked him for looking after his diver, and examined his hand to make sure there were no abrasions.
With all that in your head, how were you able to concentrate on that next dive and keep it together?
That was one of the things I learned early on. I started dancing and doing acrobatics when I was a year and a half, and I was performing on stage since I was 3, and there was the old saying, the show must go on. It doesn’t matter what’s going on in your life, or how you’re feeling, or anything like that, you have to get up there and perform, and look like you’re enjoying yourself. That was a part of my training, and in a sense, I learned to compartmentalize my life. That was one of the tools that helped me get through that part of my life, because there was a lot going on– trying to get my meds into the country (my coach had to carry most of my meds into Seoul, Korea), and my HIV, and all the pressures and stresses. Hitting my head on the board was kind of a mixed blessing too, because I was going into the 1988 Olympics as the favorite, and so when I hit my head on the diving board, I became the underdog. It’s much easier to come from that place, being the underdog, because with being the favorite, there are expectations. There are your own expectations as well as the implied expectations of others.
Do you think it is easier to come out as a gay athlete now than when you were competing?
I think it is easier to come out as a gay athlete in an individual sport, sure. Team sports are a little more difficult, and it’s also more difficult for men than it is for women. We definitely have more positive gay images out there for the public… Gay is not a lifestyle. A lifestyle to me is showing the dogs. Being gay is just a part of my life, because there are a lot of things that define me other than my sexuality.
How do you think the prognosis of being HIV positive has changed from when you were diagnosed to now?
There have been a lot of advances as far as the medications that are being used, and the efficiency of those being used. Unfortunately, since our society is so driven by the drug companies, chances are, if there is a cure, which there probably will be, and hopefully it will be in my lifetime, it will probably come from another country. It will be France, Belgium, or someplace like that, because the U.S. drug companies keep making money by making the drugs that just manage the illness, but they have made great strides as far as treatment and that sort of thing.
You say that a lot of your problems come from bottling up all of your feelings. What advice do you have for teens in a similar situation?
The one thing that I did do a lot was that I wrote a lot as a kid. I didn’t write journals or anything like that, but I wrote poems for myself, and that helped me get things out. Nowadays, I think there are so many things that are available that if young people know about them, they can take advantage of. One is the Trevor Project, which is a 24/7 call-in hotline for gay and at-risk teens (866-488-7386). They can call and have someone to talk to, and many times that is what a lot of kids need, an outlet, whether it be writing or talking to somebody… It’s a great service for someone going through difficult times, because they have somebody to talk to.
A lot of athletes are different on and off the field, and even you used drugs and alcohol heavily as a teen. Do you think athletes have a responsibility to be role models for teens?
Wow, that’s a tough one. I never had a hero. There were people that I admired, but I knew that they could not add up to a hero in all aspects of life, so I would never hold them up as a hero. I knew I could do better.
What would be your best lesson to pass on?
What comes to mind is not to be in too much of a hurry. We have a tendency to rush everything, saying ‘Oh, I have to do this by this time,’ or ‘Oh, I need to get this done by that time.’ Some of your goals, you don’t even realize for 10 or 15 years.
What do you consider the most important part of your legacy?
Probably to make a difference. If someone says that I made a difference in their life, and hopefully it was positive, then I have succeed in life. You don’t have to touch millions or thousands, or even hundreds, all you have to do is affect one person.