U.S. diving great Greg Louganis is returning to the Olympics some 30 years after he won gold medals at the 1984 and 1988 games on the springboard and the platform.
The 56-year-old is heading to Rio as an official mentor for the U.S. diving team. Unofficially, he’ll continue to serve as an inspiration for others.
Louganis wants to transform Olympic pressure into something positive for young divers after surviving his heart-stopping injury and triumph in the 1988 games in Seoul, South Korea. During those games, Louganis struck his head on the springboard while doing a reverse somersaulting dive. He returned to the board shortly after to perform a more difficult reverse somersaulting dive. He nailed it, earning the highest score of any in the event.
“I’m pretty proud of that,” said Louganis, who went on to win his third and fourth gold medals.
What many people didn’t know was that six months before the Olympics, Louganis discovered he had HIV, a diagnosis most considered a death sentence in the 1980s. At the time he was 28 years old, and he didn’t expect to live past 30.
Because of the stigma surrounding the disease, Louganis felt that he couldn’t fully reveal himself, as a gay man and HIV-positive, until 1995. “When you talk to the athletes, sexual identity, they don’t care,” Louganis said. “I think a lot of athletes are just so focused — I was — on sport, those kinds of issues aren’t in the forefront.”
Around the world, almost 40 million people suffer from HIV/AIDS, and people fighting the disease have to, like Louganis, take a combination of medicines every day. Although treatment has improved since the 1980s, research continues to find better alternatives.
Louganis has become an outspoken advocate for people with HIV with the Human Rights Campaign, and in a sign of changing attitudes, traveled with his husband to the first LGBTQI sports festival in Kathmandu, Nepal, in 2012.
Mentoring the next generation of divers
Louganis was lured out of retirement in California to mentor the U.S. diving team for the 2012 Olympics and is eager to serve that role again in Rio.
The Olympics are an emotional event and can be difficult for even the most skilled athletes, Louganis said. “When you go into that venue, you can feel that energy. If you interpret that energy as pressure, you’re more likely to implode. But if you interpret it as inspiration, that’s the key.
And inspiration can come from an unlikely place, Louganis said, even from the person who you think is your toughest competitor. “They want to beat you at your best, because you want to beat them at their best,” he said. “So really, everybody’s in your corner.”
You can follow Greg Louganis in Rio on Twitter @greglouganis, and your favorite diving teams from August 7 to 20.