Louganis makes a splash in Memphis

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by Jarvis Handy
Staff Writer

MEMPHIS – On September 19, 1988, spectators at the Jamsil Indoor Swimming Pool in North Korea gasped and held their breath in horror as Greg Louganis, unconscious, fell lifelessly into the pool after striking his head on the diving board while attempting a two-and-one-half somersault pike during the 1988 Olympic Games.

Born to unwed teenaged parents of Samoan and Northern European descent, he was adopted as an infant by a Greek-American couple, making him their second child through adoption (one older sister). A childhood full of formal acrobatic, dance, gymnastic, and diving training both conditioned and qualified Greg for record setting wins in three Olympic Games, making him the greatest diver of all time.

Before the medals and glory, the “King of Diving” was just a kid whose zeal for these arts, darker pigmented skin, undiagnosed dyslexia, and apparent homosexuality made him a target for bullying at school. An emotionally abusive and detached father only made life more difficult. Depression, drugs, and suicide attempts were to follow. After only a year away from home, living with an Olympic gold winning diving coach who had noticed his extraordinary performance at the 1971 Junior Olympics, Greg went on to win a silver medal in the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal at age sixteen. With an Olympic silver medal and his first World Championship title under his belt, he left for college at the University of Miami.

I sat down with Greg recently at the closing ceremony for the Fourth Annual Memphis Gaymes, where he was presenter and guest speaker in honor of National Coming Out Day. He recalled this time in his life, his college years, as a time when he felt “pretty safe”—a comfort for him, as this was when he first actually encountered other gay people.  He spoke to a modest crowd at the Playhouse on the Square about how supportive his mother was during his coming out process:

“I was in a relationship that was rather volatile.  It was one of those young passionate relationships where it was like fireworks, or we’re throwing dishes at each other. This was one of those times when we were throwing dishes at each other, and I called my mom and I said ‘Mom, I’ve got to get out of here, it’s not a real healthy environment.’ We packed up my things–and so we get into the car and I turned to my mom and said ‘Mom, Kevin and I were more than just roommates, we were lovers. She goes ‘I know son, what’s for dinner?’ [The audience erupted in applause and laughter.] That’s usually the one group of people that you’re most afraid to come out to is your family. We make these monsters that a lot of times don’t exist, because if someone really loves you and cares about you, all they want is for you is for you to be happy.”

Back in 1988 during the Olympics, Greg regained consciousness and exited the pool calmly as if nothing had happened; he seemed more embarrassed than hurt. The wound which resulted required temporary sutures, but even that didn’t stop him from returning to the competition 35 minutes later to finish the preliminaries. A day later he broke and set records, sweeping the competition and winning gold in both the 10 meter platform and 3 meter springboard events.

Hysteria erupted in the Olympic community years later in 1995 when Greg revealed by way of his autobiography “Breaking the Surface: The Greg Louganis Story”, and later in a Barbara Walters interview, that he had AIDS and knew that he was HIV+ at the time of his diving accident.  Of course, there was no clear danger to anyone using the pool afterwards, as the virus cannot survive in open water—a fact not yet known by an early 1990’s America still reeling from the AIDS panic of the 1980s. Mario López ("Saved by the Bell") played Greg Louganis in the 1997 autobiographical movie of the same title as the book which highlights Greg’s abusive relationship with Tom Barrett, his childhood, family life, diving career highs and lows, and HIV status.

Since going public with his sexual orientation and HIV status, Greg has taken parts in several off-Broadway plays including “Jeffrey” and “Just Say No”, and served as guest speaker at several outreach engagements across the country.  His love of animals, particularly Great Danes, was the inspiration for a second book titled “For The Life Of Your Dog” (1999). The book, which he describes as a “canine care book”, details responsible ownership, socialization, housebreaking, basic training, and problem solving/prevention.  Greg says he has since downsized to four much smaller dogs including two Jack Russell Terriers, a Border Collie, and a brand new little Papillon. He has been very active with PAWS/LA, where he’d travel to homes grooming dogs, shocking one little old lady who scrambled to fix hair and get her makeup on when she saw who had come knocking on her door.

When asked whether he ever thought queer culture would be as mondo as it is today, Greg says that he didn’t have any expectations, and that “It’s great that we’ve come so far to have a ‘Will & Grace’ on a major network where the gay character isn’t the bad guy.  It’s kinda nice to see those stereotypes and those images blown out of the water.  It’s nice to see.”  He mentioned running into Megan Mullally in Chicago at the Gay Games, where he learned of her upcoming talk show.  He remarked that it was “interesting to see the evolution of people”. Speaking about his former friendship with Rosie O’ Donnell when she was a VJ on VH1, he reminisced on how they would accompany each other to different events. He says that he regrets that they’ve since lost touch.

Just recently single after a breakup and living alone in Southern California, he says that he’s not ready to jump back into the dating scene just yet, he’s going to take his time. When asked about his highly publicized relationship with Steve Kmetko after a 1999 interview in the "Advocate," he said “We’re still friends; it wasn’t a horrible breakup or anything like that. I don’t know that he was ready for a committed relationship.  And I joke with him—at least he had the decency to break up with me if he wanted to go have a tryst—you know. [Greg laughs] It’s just like, I know what’s going on—you know. I didn’t want to go through all that. He says that though he doesn’t know what he’ll be doing in another five years, he’d like to do more TV and film. He admits that it’s not been easy breaking into the industry, but in preparation for the upcoming pilot season he’s preparing a reel. I jokingly asked if he planned on posing nude again anytime soon as he did in a 1987 issue of "Playgirl." Greg replied with “Who knows? I don’t know.” So look out for him in your favorite GLBT skin magazine. 

Greg can be seen in the upcoming film “Water Colors” (in post-production) which chronicles the life of a drug addicted teen from a broken home who is confused about his sexuality. The character is on the edge, and all he has is his love of swimming. Greg plays his coach who may very well be the one who drives him to committing suicide.

A pioneer who carried the torch as being among the first athletes to come out of the closet, with Latasha Byears, Billy Bean, Esera Tuaolo, and Sheryl Swoopes coming out later, Greg says that he is thankful to diving and the Olympic medals for giving him a platform to be heard. Just before he gave a gold medal to our very Nashville Shock team for crushing the competition in softball, he said that coming out is empowering because “the more people get to know how diverse our own community is, the more accepting they can be. My HIV was such a secret–and now I talk to people who have HIV, or who are on medications. I can talk openly about some of the side effects of the Protease Inhibitors, where you have to be near a bathroom all the time and all the crappy stuff you have to go through, but at least I feel empowered by knowing that I’m not alone. And that’s the thing; we’re not in this alone.”