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'Who Am I Without My Sport?' Greg Louganis On Life After Olympics

The documentary <em>Back On Board </em>follows the career of four-time Olympic champion Greg Louganis.
The documentary Back On Board follows the career of four-time Olympic champion Greg Louganis.

Greg Louganis is the best diver of his generation — perhaps the best the world has ever seen. The four-time gold medalist is the only man to ever sweep the diving events in consecutive Olympics.

The new documentary Back on Board, by director Cheryl Furjanic and producer Will Sweeney, contrasts that success with the inner turmoil Louganis experienced rising to stardom at such a young age.

Much of the film, which premieres Tuesday on HBO, focuses on one of the most pivotal moments of Greg Louganis's career. At the Seoul Olympics in 1988, he was going for his third gold medal when he hit his head on the springboard.

Louganis won 5 Olympic medals, 5 World Championship titles, and 47 national titles.
Louganis won 5 Olympic medals, 5 World Championship titles, and 47 national titles.

"The first emotion I felt, I was embarrassed — because this is the Olympic games! I'm supposed to be a pretty good diver," Louganis tells NPR's Arun Rath. "Pretty good divers don't do that."

He talks with Rath about getting back into the competition after that experience, as well as coming out as a gay and HIV-positive athlete.

Interview Highlights

On deciding to continue to competing after hitting his head on the springboard

They sewed up my head and I made that decision with my coach Ron O'Brien that I was going to continue. He was just saying "Well, hockey players they get 20 stitches and they get back on the ice. You got five stitches. It's nothing!" And we were laughing about the whole thing.

But when I got up on the board and they announced the dive and it was in the same direction that I hit my head on the board. I could hear an audible gasp from the audience. So I took a deep breath and I patted my chest. And then the people around who saw that started chuckling and I started laughing to myself, thinking, "Oh my God, I'm not the only one who's scared. I don't know what's gonna happen."

As it turned out, it was the highest scoring dive, I think, of that Olympic games.

On being HIV-positive while he achieved his Olympic success

Six months prior to the Olympic Games in Seoul, Korea in 1988, I was diagnosed HIV-positive. And I was training in Florida at the time, and I was gonna pack my bags, come back to California, lock myself in my house, and wait to die because we thought of HIV/AIDS as a death sentence. And talking with my doctor he said, "The healthiest thing for you is to continue training." And so it was much easier for me to focus on the diving rather than the HIV, you know.

After decades out of the diving scene, Louganis is now a mentor for the U.S. Olympic diving team.
After decades out of the diving scene, Louganis is now a mentor for the U.S. Olympic diving team.

When I hit my head on the board, I was paralyzed by fear. I didn't know what my responsibility was, because really the people who were at risk were the two doctors that were sewing up my head — that was a concern. But I was also competing in a country had they known my HIV status, I wouldn't have been allowed into the country to be able to compete at that Olympic Games.

On the anger directed at him after he came out as gay and HIV-positive

There was a lot of debate going on around the country ... but the thing is, it got people talking about it. I mean, my first interview was with Barbara Walters, and then on Friday on 20/20, and then on Monday I'm talking to Oprah. So what I told Barbara when we did our interview, I said, "Well, all of those people who cheered for me through my Olympic career can no longer say that they have not been touched by HIV/AIDS."

It was important to learn how you got HIV, but it was also important how you're not gonna get HIV — and you're not gonna get HIV through a chlorinated pool.

When you retire from your sport ... it's almost like you lose a part of yourself. You lose your identity.

On returning to the diving world to mentor current Olympic hopefuls

It's great to share those experiences. I'm most concerned with aftercare because as an elite athlete you finish your career and then you're pretty young. When you retire from your sport then it's almost like you lose a part of yourself. You lose your identity ... I retired at 28 ... You know, making that transition is not always easy. It's like, "OK, now who am I? Who am I without my sport?"

On how gay rights and attitudes towards homosexuality have changed since the '80s

It really is shocking to me because where we are today, being legally married in the state of California, having the Supreme Court ruling. You know, during the ceremony when my husband and I got married ... we kinda smiled at each other and said our parents are looking down on us and smiling on us today.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR Staff