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Greg Louganis Dives Into New Challenges

By Amy Rosewater | Aug. 08, 2014, 2:59 a.m. (ET)

Greg Louganis performs a practice dive on Dec. 1, 1984 in Los Angeles.

Thirty years ago, when Greg Louganis was preparing for the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games, his goal was to be the best diver ever to step on a platform.

Today, he is discovering his diving success has given him a platform.

Louganis won the first two of his four Olympic gold medals in Los Angeles, and it was during the 1984 Games that he established himself as a household name. Raised in Los Angeles, Louganis became one of the most popular American athletes from those Games. He went on to win two more gold medals four years later during the ’88 Games in Seoul, South Korea, and ever since he has used his diving fame to speak out about gay rights issues and treatment for the AIDS epidemic.

Olympic gold medalist Greg Louganis attends Bash To Banish Bullying, benefiting It Gets Better, at Saguaro Hotel on March 16, 2013 in Palm Springs, California.

“Diving gave me a voice,” Louganis said. “When I wrote my book (“Breaking the Surface”) back in 1995, I would be on the book tour and people would tell me, ‘You saved my life.’ Now I am finding I am doing the same kind of thing with my documentary.”

“Back on Board,” a documentary that chronicles Louganis’ life in the water as well as several deep issues out of it — his sexuality, treatment for HIV and finding financial security following the recession — made its debut in June. While many outsiders might believe that winning Olympic gold medals equates with a problem-free future, Louganis might be the first to dispel that myth.

These days he appears to be on solid ground. He said he has been sober for the past eight years, is happily married, having legally exchanged vows with partner Johnny Chaillot, a paralegal, in 2013, and said he is now paying bills on time. At his wedding, Louganis gave his diving coach, Ron O’Brien, one of his Olympic gold medals.

“I think as an Olympian you believe you are supposed to be superhuman,” Louganis said. “I kept my problems pretty much on the down low. But now I believe things are in a good place. I am married and my husband and I are in this together. We have a one-bedroom apartment, but we can pay our bills.”

Louganis, 54, found himself in a very good place late last month when he was reunited with several U.S. Olympic teammates from 1984. The LA84 Foundation, created from the profits from the Los Angeles Games to help youth sports programs in the city, held a reception to commemorate the 30th anniversary of those Games. One of the first athletes to give him a hug at the event was none other than champion gymnast Mary Lou Retton.

Louganis was especially grateful to see Peter Ueberroth, who headed the Los Angeles Games and put the Olympic Movement on a path to profits. Ueberroth, in turn, told Louganis that it was because of athletic performances from those 1984 Games that the movement was able to become as strong as it did.

Louganis made his Olympic debut in 1976, claiming a silver medal in Montreal, and was considered a gold-medal favorite for the Games in 1980. The United States boycotted the Games in Moscow, and Louganis had to wait until 1984 to compete for gold.

“It was a long eight years,” Louganis said. “Some of us made it, and some of us didn’t.”

Although many Soviet-bloc nations boycotted the Games in Los Angeles, Louganis’ main competition — divers from China — made the trek to California in 1984. Louganis and O’Brien made it their goal not only to win gold medals in the 3-meter springboard and 10-meter platform events but to break the 700-point barrier as well.

The pressure of competing in his hometown and being the favorite created an especially tense competition for Louganis.

Greg Louganis looks on during the 1984 Olympic Games in August 1984 in Los Angeles, California. 

“After I won the first gold medal in ’84, it was such a relief,” Louganis said. “It really was a monkey off my back. It did validate my success, but for me, I knew it wasn’t going to be good enough to win one gold medal since people expected me to win two, and I wanted to deliver.

“I enjoyed winning the first gold medal, but if you go back and play video of the medal ceremony from after the first one and after I won the platform, you can tell the difference. After I won the first gold medal, I had already moved on and was focused on winning the second one.”

When he won the second gold medal in the platform, he was able to smile.

“Those Olympic Games really were a dream come true for me,” he said. “It was kind of me staking my claim, my space in history. I was able to continue on and win again in 1988 and I had good fortune, but in ’84, I felt I was at the very physical peak of my elitism as an athlete.”

He continued to train following the Los Angeles Games for the Games in Seoul. Six months before the 1988 Games, however, he learned he had HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. While today, HIV is treatable, back in 1988, the diagnosis was viewed as a death sentence.

“I didn’t expect to see 30,” Louganis said. “I was 28 years old and had HIV.”

He didn’t disclose the fact that he had HIV at the time. During the preliminaries for the springboard event at the 1988 Games, he hit his head on a dive and bled in the water. A doctor stitched him up, and he was able to qualify for the finals and win a gold medal.

Louganis did not go public with his medical condition until the mid-1990s but has since used his fame to call attention to gay rights issues and to treatment of HIV/AIDS. One person he has befriended over the years is Jeanne White, whose son, Ryan, died after complications of AIDS in 1990. Louganis gave his gold medal from the springboard event to Jeanne White.

Louganis continues to be active with USA Diving and works as a mentor to several young divers who hope to achieve their Olympic dreams on the diving board.

Now, 30 years after he won his first gold medal, Louganis has seen his life — and the country he lives in — change dramatically. When he competed in 1984, he was a closeted man. Now he is openly gay and married. He has been overseas at events where the gay movement has not achieved as much as it has in the United States and hopes to help impact change.

“There’s still a ways to go,” Louganis said of the gay civil rights movement. “But it has definitely changed a lot.”

As has he.

Amy Rosewater is a freelance writer and editor for TeamUSA.org. A former sports reporter for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, she covered her fifth Olympic Games in Sochi. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today.