SIOM #18: The Dominant Daring Diver

Greg Louganis is one of the greatest divers in the history of the sport; in fact, one would be hard pressed to find anyone better. This week’s tale will not culminate in his winning an Olympic gold medal; for the few among you who didn’t know this already, Louganis won several. The familiar theme with SIOMs past is one of personal hardship, adversity and, ultimately, triumph.

Greg Louganis was born in 1960 to a Swedish / Samoan couple who were sufficiently advanced in years to have a child, had their ages been combined. They felt unprepared and financially unable to raise their child, given that they were both fifteen years old when he was born. Louganis was raised by his adoptive Greek / American parents but life was far from easy. Louganis’ adoptive father was an emotionally abusive alcoholic whose presence only exacerbated Louganis’ feelings of inadequacy, fuelled by the taunts of classmates, who ridiculed him for his ethnicity, sexuality, dyslexia and tendency to stutter.

Louganis’ coping strategy was twofold, a dangerous combination of the high road and the low road, of Dr Jekyll the dance, acrobatic and gymnastic enthusiast who scored a perfect ten at the Junior Olympics diving event at the age of eleven, and Mr Hyde, the speed-ingesting, marijuana-dealing, suicide-attempting angst ridden teen. Correction: Louganis was not yet a teenager at this point.

Fortunately, his growing prowess on the diving board tipped the scales in favour of sporting ambition and, finding oral and emotional expression challenging, Louganis chose instead to express himself physically, throwing himself headlong into diving, immersing himself entirely in a vocation that afforded him recognition while allowing him solitude and silence. During the junior Olumpics, Louganis’ efforts had been observed by Dr Sammy Lee, a Korean double Olympic gold medal winner who soon took it upon himself to be Louganis’ coach and mentor. Four years later, Louganis moved in with Dr Lee. Under Dr Lee’s strict tutelage, Louganis achieved his first Olympic medal at the 1976 games, placing second in the 10m platform event behind Italian sporting legend Klaus Dibiasi (who won five Olympic medals over his illustrious career but retired soon after Montreal).

Few could have known it at the time, but Dibiasi’s retirement was a passing of the torch. In 1978, Louganis won his first world title, also in the 10m platform event. By 1980, with the Moscow Games approaching, Louganis was favourite to win both the 10m platform and 3m springboard gold medals. US President Jimmy Carter, however, had other plans, deciding that the US would boycott the 1980 Games in protest against Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan (ironic, given present circumstances).

Having been cheated in 1980, Louganis was overwhelming favourite to win two Olympic golds at the 1984 Games, in front of his home crowd in Los Angeles. His dominance by then was so comprehensive that anything less than double gold would be considered a failure. Louganis had been undefeated in the 3m springboard even since 1981 and easily won gold, with his 3m springboard winning streak subsequently extending to 1987. Going into his final dive (of eleven) in the 10m platform event, Louganis’ lead was such that he could have belly flopped his way to a zero score, watched his closest opponent score a perfect ten and still stood atop the podium, the first male diver to win the Olympic double since 1928. The competition was over prior to his final dive, but he was not one to disappoint his home crowd.

One year previously, Louganis had been standing at the top of the stairs to the 10m platform. The diver ahead of him, a Russian, set off on an extremely dangerous three-and-a-half somersault tuck. Shortly thereafter, Louganis felt the tower shake beneath him and immediately realised that something had gone terribly wrong. The Russian had not gained sufficient clearance to avoid the board on his way down. His head hit the platform with such force that Louganis felt the tower shake. For his final dive at the 1984 Games, Louganis attempted, and performed magnificently, the same dive that had killed a fellow competitor. Louganis became the first person to score over 700 points in a single event.

Four years later, twelve years after his first Olympic medal, Louganis travelled to the 1988 Games in Seoul, where his stiffest competition would be a Chinese diver half his age. The preliminaries of the three metre springboard should have been nothing more than a formality for the defending champion, but provided one of the most dramatic moments in the history of the Games. On his ninth dive of eleven, Louganis repeated a mistake that had brought about a Russian’s demise, a mistake that Louganis himself had made in Tbilisi, a year before the Moscow Games.

Louganis’ error in judgement required eight temporary stitches. Thirty five minutes later, he completed his last two dives, easily qualifying for the final, which he won the following day. Louganis would later express his gratitude for this mistake, “It turned out to be a mixed blessing. I was heavy favourite but in a split second I became the underdog. It was an easier position to come from because the expectations weren’t there.” A few days later, Louganis mounted his title defence in the 10m platform competition. Going into the final round, he trailed fourteen year old Chinese prodigy Xiong Li (wh0 would subsequently win three gold medals in total at the 1996 and 2000 Games) by such a margin that nothing less than sublime execution of an extremely difficult dive would suffice:

Louganis won his fourth gold medal, this time by the narrowest of margins – a mere 1.14 points. For his efforts, he was awarded the Maxwell House/United States Olympic Committee Spirit Award as the Olympic athlete who had best exhibited the ideals of the Olympic spirit, demonstrated extraordinary courage and contributed significantly to the sport. It would transpire, almost a decade later, that Louganis’ courage in mounting the three metre springboard so soon after his accident was as psychological as it was physical. With temporary stitches in the back of his head, Louganis was impeded not only by fear, but moreso by guilt – the doctor had attended to him without gloves. At that stage and for years thereafter, his coach was the only other person who knew that Louganis had tested HIV positive while training for the 1988 Games.

Louganis declared his sexuality in 1994 during a videotaped message to athletes competing at Gay Games IV in New York. He remains extremely busy, speaking to youth clubs about drug and alcohol abuse and working with organisations that help the dyslexic. Always humble about his sporting achievements, Louganis has 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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