SGN speaks with Greg Louganis on his life and upcoming Seattle appearance
by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
For years, Greg Louganis' cheerful public persona gave little hint to the personal challenges he faced. Through strength and determination, Louganis has learned to accept his HIV-positive diagnosis and has overcome substance abuse, domestic violence, and battled dyslexia.
Greg Louganis spoke with Seattle Gay News on the obstacles he has overcome and his upcoming appearance in Seattle with a warmth and grace that embody the Olympic spirit.
'I have been to Seattle many times. I love it. The city and surrounding area are beautiful,' he said. 'A good buddy of mine lives in Seattle and also a teammate of mine from the 1988 Olympic dive team is there.'
Greg is scheduled as a guest speaker at 'Making a Difference: The 2nd Annual Lifelong AIDS Alliance Benefit Breakfast' on February 24 from 7:30-9 a.m. at The Red Lion Hotel (1415 5th Avenue). The breakfast is a community event that provides an opportunity for donors, corporations, and political leaders to join together and make a charitable difference in the lives of those affected by and living with HIV and AIDS.
Greg says he accepted the invitation because he supports the work that Lifelong AIDS Alliance does. 'I work with HIV and AIDS organizations like Lifelong because I've found that, by sharing my story with others, it is a type of therapy for not only them, but for me as well,' he told SGN. 'When I first tested positive for HIV, I was fortunate to have such an incredible support team around me. That is exactly what Lifelong supplies for others. They offer services and support for people who may not be able to get what they need from anyone else.'
Before Greg became a Gay icon and outspoken advocate for Gay rights and youth services, he was best known as one of the world's most talented divers.
Greg began competing in diving at age 9. By 16, he had won his first Olympic medal - a silver medal on the platform in 1976. At 24, he became the first man in 56 years to win two gold medals in diving by winning both the platform and springboard events. In 1988, competing against divers half his age, he became the first to win double gold medals for diving in two consecutive Olympic games.
Greg's diving accomplishments did not stop there. He is a five-time world champion and holds 47 national championship titles. At the Pan Am Games, he earned six gold medals, and in 1985, he was awarded the Sullivan Award as 'the nation's most outstanding amateur athlete.'
Greg was the first to score over 700 points in a diving competition under the old scoring system and is still the only one to accomplish that feat at the Olympics. However, what most people remember about Greg is that he went on to win the gold at the 1988 games despite striking the back of his head on the springboard during the preliminaries. He attempted a reverse two and-a-half somersault pike in the ninth round of the prelims, and he hit his head on the board and fell into the water. Thirty-five minutes later, after receiving stitches to his scalp wound, he resumed diving. The following day, he hit all 11 dives and easily won the Olympic gold medal.
Greg is more than just a diver; he stands out as a human being, as well. Greg speaks out for many organizations, including youth clubs, drug and alcohol rehabilitation groups, and organizations for the dyslexic.
'Three months ago, I started coaching at SoCal Divers in Orange County, California,' he told SGN. 'The kids are ages ranging from 7-22, and are at different diving skill levels. Our intent is to go beyond the normal diving community. I teach the kids about community outreach and being a good citizen.'
'Whenever the kids do something good, like pick up trash or volunteer, they are rewarded with 'hero bucks,' Greg said. 'Good grades are also rewarded. Whenever a diver gets enough hero bucks, they win an international trip with me. They get to go to a diving competition and be exposed to a new culture. My hope is that they then bring that experience back home to the other kids.'
'I think it is important to teach youth to be aware of more than just themselves,' he continued. 'I love it. We have a lot of fun, and the program is all about setting goals. We do some diving, but the program is focused on so much more. It is important to me that these kids adopt the practice of giving back to the community.'
Fifteen years ago, Greg was invited to be a guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show to talk about being an out Gay athlete with HIV. This year, he was invited back to be a part of her final season.
'Being on Oprah's show twice was an awesome experience,' he said. 'But this time it was very sweet. The show I was plugged into was 'Homosexuality and Where We Are Today.' I got to surprise a teen that had been questioning his sexuality and tell him about my experiences with coming out. It was very cool. I was honored to be a part of that show.'
Greg admits that although it may be easy to talk about today, the world was a much different place in 1978, when he came out of the closet. 'First and foremost, you have to come out to yourself before you attempt to tell others. You must accept yourself for who you really are,' he said. 'I came out as Gay when I was at the University of Miami. I told my parents, and people in the diving community knew. I didn't hide it from those around me.'
In the 1980s, Greg said it was his policy not to discuss his sexual orientation with the media. In fact, he didn't start talking about it with the general population until right before his autobiography came out. He made his big announcement at the 1994 Gay Games.
Greg was diagnosed HIV-positive in 1988, and revealed his status in his 1995 autobiography, Breaking the Surface, which spent five weeks at number one on the New York Times Best Seller list.
'I knew that writing the book and coming out as Gay and HIV-positive was the next step in my journey,' he told SGN. 'I decided it was time to live out and proud and become more secure with myself.'
'Keeping the secret that I was HIV-positive was terrifying,' he admits. 'For years, I felt like I was living on an island because that is what secrets do: they isolate. I felt that the only real way for me to communicate who I was was through a book.'
He said that in the mid-1990s, the media would have just treated him as a headline, and not a person. 'I knew that my struggle and my life was worth much more than that. It was a very emotional and raw experience. Writing a book is an extremely personal thing.'
Greg says that when he does public speaking engagements, he reminds people not to forget about where we were as a community and a nation during the AIDS crisis. 'People don't realize that in 1988, I had to lie about my status because if anyone on the Olympic Board had known, I would not have been allowed to go to South Korea and compete. I would have missed the Olympics.'
'There was just so much fear surrounding HIV/AIDS back then,' he added. 'So much has changed since then, and that is a great thing.'
Greg told Seattle Gay News that if he could go back in time to tell his 16-year-old self anything it would be to work on self-esteem.
'It is so important for young people - or anybody really, regardless of age - to realize that you are enough and you are of value,' he said. 'That is the most important thing, you know & to have self-worth. There are bad choices that I made in my life that, had I had a better self-image, I may not have made.'
He was quick to add that, 'every experience I have had, good or bad, has helped to make me who I am today, and I like who I am today.'
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