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People: Hit by backwash but Greg Louganis is now at peace

The ups and downs of former Olympic diving champion Greg Louganis' life are documented in a new film, Back On Board. He has battled depression and financial difficulties that brought him to the brink of bankruptcy.
The ups and downs of former Olympic diving champion Greg Louganis' life are documented in a new film, Back On Board. He has battled depression and financial difficulties that brought him to the brink of bankruptcy.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

His heyday was the 1980s, but many still believe Greg Louganis of the United States is the greatest diver ever, his place in history sealed by four Olympic golds and an unforgettable turn at the 1982 World Championships, when he became the first diver to earn a perfect score at a major international meet.

But fortune does not always follow fame, not even for an Olympic champion  - and certainly not one who revealed he was gay and HIV positive in the 1990s, and found himself shunned as a result.

Louganis fell on hard times in the years that followed, battling depression and financial difficulties that brought him to the brink of bankruptcy before he dusted himself off and returned to the sport four years ago as a coach and mentor in the United States national team.

These are some of the slings and arrows documented in a new film, Back On Board, which he discussed recently with The Straits Times and other press in Los Angeles.

The gently-spoken 55-year-old seems to harbour little resentment over the prejudice he faced as one of the first openly-gay athletes. Instead, he chooses to focus on the heartening example set by young sportsmen such as Britain's Tom Daley, 21, and Australia's Matthew Mitcham, 27, two divers who have come out in recent years.

EACH PERSON'S JOURNEY IS UNIQUE

Straight or gay, we all have our own journey... Maybe we're not living in that time and space any more but it's important for young people to see what it was like back in the day.

GREG LOUGANIS, former US Olympic diver

"Matthew's story was so courageous. He realised he couldn't compete at a high level and just be sharing a part of himself. I so admired that," he said. "And then with Tom, I've known him since he was a kid. It's so heartwarming to see them embraced. It's very encouraging.''

Asked if it is easier to be a gay athlete today, he notes that there has been astounding progress but there is still a long way to go.

He was particularly impressed when American soccer player Robbie Rogers, 28, and Canadian Football League star Michael Sam, 25, decided to come out. "I never thought I'd see it in team sports. In individual sports you can kind of understand it because it really is just you up there, but in team sports you have to have the team behind you."

He added: "Straight or gay, we all have our own journey. That's what this documentary really shows - I had my journey. Maybe we're not living in that time and space any more but it's important for young people to see what it was like back in the day.''

What the documentary also highlights is that Louganis lost out on millions of dollars in endorsements because major advertisers would not touch him - even when he was breaking records at the 1976, 1984 and 1988 Olympics.

But the man himself appears to have no bitterness about this.

"Well, I was also diving at a time when commercialism in the Olympics was really very new. It started in '72 with Mark Spitz and '76 with Bruce Jenner,'' he says, referring to the fact that the American swimmer and decathlete were the first Olympians to attract big-money sponsorships and be featured in national advertising campaigns.

He says he himself "really wasn't in it for the money".

"'It was for the love of the sport and that pride and accomplishing an achievement."

Louganis, who is married to paralegal Johnny Chaillot, 54, has also found a new sense of purpose in recent years as he has begun mentoring divers on the US team.

''I was just at Duke University in North Carolina and Austin, Texas working with some of the athletes," he said.

"We have a young boy at Duke, Jordan Windle, who has an incredible story - he was adopted from Cambodia, he has two dads and he's an incredible talent.

''I've known him since he was eight years old. He's going to be 17 next year and everybody has their hopes set for him for the 2020 Games but I'm keeping my fingers crossed that he makes the next Olympic team.''

Asked which are the countries to watch at next year's Rio Games, he points to the usual suspects - the United States, China and Australia - but says Mexico and Canada could be contenders as well.

"Mexico has done an incredible job. They've poured a lot of money and resources into their diving programme and it shows. They have some incredibly talented divers there.  Their synchronised men's platform team blows me away.''

Like everyone else, the Americans  are keeping a close eye on the Chinese.

"The state of diving right now is the entire world chasing China.  But Mexico's up there, Australia's up there, Canada has a different programme, and the US has our work cut out for us.

"But really, the Olympics is such a unique experience and venue because there is so much media hype. And as history has shown, the Chinese don't always do well under that type of pressure. So anything can happen - anything.''

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 14, 2015, with the headline 'Hit by backwash but Louganis is now at peace'. Print Edition | Subscribe