The pool was my sanctuary where HIV didn’t exist: Olympic legend Greg Louganis
Greg Louganis, inspired by the fight of a 14-year-old boy who had got HIV through blood transfusion, won the 3m springboard Olympic gold in Seoul.Updated: Dec 15, 2018 20:25 IST
It is when Greg Louganis describes himself as someone who is ‘weird wired’ that you realise how accurate the self-evaluation is. Geniuses have a tendency for such stuff.
His is the story of a man who was given a death sentence - that is what being HIV+ felt like when he was diagnosed, he said - some six months before the 1988 Seoul Olympics. “In some ways, I think it was a blessing for me, I don’t think I ever felt sorry for myself, I was grateful to be out there, still healthy to be able to dive (even on days when it was cold and the weather was miserable),” said Louganis, silver-haired but looking fitter than most 58-year-olds.
Perhaps because he is tuned differently, Louganis said he is looking forward to a hip replacement surgery on the last day of this year because “it will help me do new things.” Perhaps that also explains why 25 minutes after hurting his head on the ninth dive, Louganis, inspired by the fight of a 14-year-old boy who had got HIV through blood transfusion, won the 3m springboard Olympic gold in Seoul.
“I had to box it up (the incident), put it on a shelf like it never happened. I didn’t have time to deal with it,” said Louganis, who is in Kolkata as the international brand ambassador for Sunday’s Tata Steel 25k road race.
Having worked every tissue and strained every sinew in training, athletes look forward to their weekly rest day but, fighting depression, Louganis said dealing with off-days were the hardest.“Those days, I would be lucky if I could get out of bed and pour a bowl of cereal.”
With all this, with life throwing curveballs like it had nothing else to do, how could you be the world’s most decorated diver unless you were wired differently?
Singing and dancing on stage since he was three - he is now writing a musical that will be called ‘Hero’ - Louganis said each dive for him was a performance. “The awards, the medals they were more important to my coach (Ron O’ Brien).”
Louganis speaks softly and when he moves those muscular arms, his bracelets, one of them with ‘Truth’ engraved on it, tingle. Snuck in his right ring finger is a silver ring that has the Olympic circles. Making the US Olympic gymnastics team was an early goal but a knee injury at 12 ended that. “The doctors said I could dive but stop everything else,” he said.
It wasn’t the only time the pool became his sanctuary. On being diagnosed HIV+, Louganis said his doctor told him the most obvious thing to do would be to continue training.
“He would treat the medical side and rely on my coach to get me into shape to make the Olympic team,” he said. Having a goal helped Louganis cope. “Rather than ruminate about my situation, I had my diving. That was something that was very positive. I could focus my energy in the pool where HIV didn’t exist,” he said.
Louganis said he learnt early that having something to do, even if it meant showing up for a media interview, could become a coping skill. After the Olympics, it was the stress of dealing with a partner who had put him on the brink of financial ruin and the news of his father’s cancer that kept him occupied.
“That is also when I came out about my status to dad. We had a difficult relationship growing up and in that time we were able to heal a lot. He was looking after me and I him,” he said.
For a man used to toting up 10s and 9.5s, Louganis said he doesn’t believe in perfection because striving for it can produce either paralysis or procrastination.
“Meditation is motion, that is peak performance. I have had dives where my mind was totally blank and yet I saw that I had scored 9.5. Allow your body to do what it is trained to do. If after a poor take-off you give up, you will score in the range 2-4. But if you fight for it, you will still be in the sixes and sevens. Chase success, not perfection,” he said.
It was after this that Louganis made the ‘weird wired’ comment. He was explaining how fear isn’t the first thing that strikes him when he is trying something new. Like being a trapeze artist, for instance. “Over a year into doing it, and my coach trusting me without a harness, did I once look down and realise I could get hurt.”
But fear is the first thing young divers must overcome and Louganis said being a Potterhead has helped him draw on ‘Prisoner of Azkaban’ to make a point to those he mentors. “Learn to laugh at your fear. Make it so ridiculous that it gets out of your system.”
The world’s best diver, gay rights activist (“even in sport despite a lot of hurdles, things are moving in the right direction”), theatre personality, Louganis is all of that but labels are not what he is about. “What I do is try to speak the truth and if that is empowering to someone else, that is wonderful. I don’t think it is anything extraordinary.”
Only those wired differently can say that and still sound genuine. Sail on silver guy.