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Louganis overcame odds to earn Olympic gold
Louganis never lost drive to dive
By Ron Flatter
Special to ESPN.com
"When my cousin told me that I was HIV positive, it's one of those things when you get the information, it's a ringing in your head, and you can't hear anything. A real hollow feeling. And I wasn't sure what I was going to do," says Greg Louganis on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.
To pick one athlete as the greatest ever in his or her sport is a good way to start an argument. But maybe not in every sport.
Pat McCormick? Like Louganis, she doubled with gold medals in the springboard and the platform in successive Olympics. Klaus Dibiasi? Like Louganis, he won five Olympic medals.
But McCormick and Dibiasi were not as dominant as Louganis. Not just in their time. For all-time. In 1984, he became the first to register 700 points in platform diving under the current scoring system.
Only the 1980 American boycott of the Moscow Games prevented Louganis from piling more gold onto his Olympic resume. Even when he hit his head on the springboard executing a dive in 1988, Louganis still won an Olympic championship.
That dive also caused him some concern for another reason. At the time, Louganis secretly knew he was HIV-positive. If he had bled into the pool -- which he did not -- could Louganis have spread the AIDS virus to another competitor? Although doctors agreed the odds of that happening were minute, Louganis later said, "It must seem irresponsible now, but I hadn't considered the possibility that I could injure myself in that way."
In 1994, Louganis publicly acknowledged his homosexuality, and the next year, his autobiography, Breaking the Surface, became a best-seller shortly after he told Barbara Walters on national television he was suffering from AIDS.
The life story of Gregory Efthimios Louganis began in San Diego on Jan. 29, 1960, when he was born to parents of Samoan and Northern European ancestry. Both were only 15, and they gave up their child. He was adopted at nine months by Peter and Frances Louganis, who had already adopted an older daughter. Peter drank heavily and Greg says his adopted father rejected him and abused him emotionally. That behavior reinforced Louganis' feelings of inadequacy. His adoptive mother Frances tried, usually unsuccessfully, to be the peacekeeper between them.
As a youngster, Louganis was ridiculed by schoolmates for his ethnicity, his dyslexia and his choices of extracurricular activities -- acrobatics, dance and gymnastics. But the tumbling skills he learned came in handy around the family pool, where Louganis found himself rolling off the end of the diving board. This led to Louganis being enrolled in diving classes.
Only two years after his first lesson, the 11-year-old Louganis turned heads when he scored a perfect 10 at the 1971 Junior Olympics national competition in Colorado Springs.
But Louganis was not yet fully dedicated to diving. By 12, he was doing speed, selling marijuana at school and even attempting suicide. Eventually, he turned more and more to diving, the one area of his life that gave him self-confidence and success. Before long, daily diving practices became Louganis' outlet, affording him a solitude he desired during his adolescence.
Louganis moved away from his parents in 1975 and into the home of his coach, Dr. Sammy Lee, an Olympic diving gold medalist in 1948 and 1952 who had seen young Greg's perfect dive in Colorado Springs. Lee coached Louganis with a strict schedule of training sessions with an Olympic medal in mind.
In 1976, the hard work paid off for Louganis, who won an Olympic silver medal for his performance in the platform, losing to Dibiasi. No one knew it yet, but the Italian diving great was passing the torch to the 16-year-old Californian.
Not that any clues were coming from Louganis himself. Returning home with the platform silver and a sixth-place finish in the springboard, he felt he had failed in Montreal. He became more and more introspective, and he turned to alcohol and cigarettes.
Hoping to get as far away from the world in which he grew up as he could, Louganis decided to go from one coast to the other when he accepted a scholarship from the University of Miami. Shortly before going off to college, Louganis won his first world platform title in 1978, the year he hooked up with a new coach, Ron O'Brien. Louganis would win four more world championships besides 47 AAU national titles.
After winning the springboard and platform at the 1979 Pan-American Games, Louganis was expected to win Olympic gold in Moscow. That was before President Jimmy Carter called for a U.S. boycott in protest of the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan.
Maybe Louganis was just not meant to be in the Soviet Union. The year before the 1980 Olympics, he hit his head on the platform diving at a meet in Tbilisi, a harbinger of things nine years later.
The boycott only postponed the inevitable for Louganis, who, in 1981, had transferred to UC Irvine in his native Southern California. He made the move to get closer to O'Brien, the head of the prestigious Mission Viejo Swim Club.
At the 1982 World Championships, Louganis became the first diver in a major international meet to get a perfect score of 10 from all seven judges. He embarked on a national winning streak that would not end until 1987. Along the way, he earned his bachelor of arts degree in theater, and he quit smoking and drinking. Louganis was ready to conquer life -- and the Olympics.
In winning both the springboard and the platform events at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, Louganis became the first man to pull off that Olympic double since American Pete Desjardins in 1928. He also was the first to pass 700 points in both events in the same Olympics. His 710.91 points remain the most recorded in the Olympic platform competition since the advent of the current scoring system, and his victory in the springboard was the most lopsided in the history of the Games. That dominance also earned for Louganis the Sullivan Award, which annually goes to America's best amateur athlete.
His encore performance four years later in Seoul didn't come as easily.
After taking temporary sutures to sew up a scalp wound, he came back 35 minutes later to resume diving. When qualifying ended, he went to a hospital, where the sutures were replaced by five mattress stitches. The next day, he hit all 11 dives and won easily.
A week later, in the finals of the platform competition, Louganis trailed 14-year-old Xiong Ni of China by three points going into the last round. With a reverse 3½ somersault facing him, Louganis nailed that most difficult dive in his program and won the gold medal by 1.14 points. He became only the second athlete to win double diving golds in two Olympics (McCormick did it in 1952 and 1956).
After announcing his retirement from competition in 1989, Louganis became a stage actor. Two of his most noteworthy roles were as a chorus boy who dies of AIDS in the 1993 off-Broadway production of "Jeffrey," and in 1995 in "The Only Thing Worse You Could Have Told Me . . .," a one-man comedy about the family life of a gay man.
In 1994, Louganis came out and declared his homosexuality during a videotaped message to athletes competing at Gay Games IV in New York.
Still living in Southern California, Louganis spends much of his time speaking to youth groups about drug and alcohol rehabilitation and working on behalf of organizations helping the dyslexic.
About his athletic achievements, Louganis said, "I don't want to be remembered as the greatest diver who ever lived. I want to be able to see the greatest diver. I hope I live to see the day when my records are broken."
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