Chances are if you were a gay boy growing up in the 1980s, you probably had a photo of Olympic diving champion Greg Louganis on your bedroom wall. Clad only in a tight Speedo swimsuit, the photogenic Louganis was the epitome of a teenage dream, although few knew the despair he was going through privately. As a shy kid who faced bullying for being adopted, biracial and effeminate, he found solace on the diving board. His hard work and dedication paid off when he won back-to-back gold medals at the 1984 and 1988 Olympics. The 1995 publication of Louganis’ memoir Breaking the Surface sent shock waves through the sports world by confirming what many had long suspected, that he was gay, but also that he was HIV positive and had been when he accidentally hit his head on the diving board at the 1988 summer Olympics in Seoul, potentially exposing other swimmers and his doctor to the virus. Louganis unexpectedly found himself in the role of HIV activist as he defended his “lifestyle” to an often uninformed and homophobic media that preferred to blame the victim. Larry King’s blunt and decidedly insensitive question to Greg, “How could a smart guy like you practice unsafe sex?” encapsulated much of the mid-’90s response to those dealing with the virus. It’s been over 25 years since “the greatest American diver” retired. The exceptional new documentary, Back on Board (screening in Los Angeles at Outfest July 19) combines archival footage, following the athlete from pre-teen diving phenom, to present day as Greg returns to the sport that made him a legend. The recently-married Louganis chatted with Queerty (just before another swimmer Ian Thorpe came out publicly) about making the documentary, his career and how he became an HIV/AIDS activist.
How were you approached to do this documentary?
Will Sweeney [Back on Board‘s producer] read an article in the New York Times about me coming back to diving and he said, “ Oh my God, Greg Louganis is coming back to diving!” He never knew I left. He thought there was a story there. Cheryl Furjanic [the film’s director] reached out to me and did some research. What she found was that if you were 27 years old or younger, you didn’t know who Greg Louganis was. She said, “I want to change that. You have such a tremendous coming out story, (and) coming forward about your HIV status.” It’s been almost 20 years since my book, Breaking the Surfacewas published in 1995 and people were asking, “What happened? Where is he? What’s he doing?”
Back on Board contains a staggering amount of archival footage that traces back to your childhood, your Olympic highlights and coming out process. Are there any particular scenes that are painful for you to watch?
It’s awkward seeing Jim again [Louganis’ abusive former partner, who died of AIDS]. The history there. It was somewhat disturbing but, ya know, it’s my life. The thing I’m proud of is that I take ownership of it because; like I say in the film, “I allowed it.” I allowed the abuse. I allowed a lot of the things that a happened in my life. I have to own up and take responsibility for that.
You speak very candidly about the abusive relationship you had with your former partner and being diagnosed with HIV. In the midst of those struggles were you able to imagine a future for yourself?
No, I thought I would be dead. The clock was ticking and I was resigned to it. After diving I ventured into the world of dog training and agility. The dogs gave me a sense of security, company and unconditional love.
Who’s the first person you came out to?
[Laughs] That’s kind of a funny story. In 1976 I went to a friend of mine, an older diver. I went to him asking advice and wanting to open up that door of conversation. It was a Canadian diver. When I started the conversation he ran. He wouldn’t be in the same room with me alone. He was in total avoidance. He was dealing with his own coming out process. I thought that he would potentially be a resource, ally, and mentor. But as it turned out, he ran. That was the first person I identified myself to him as being gay. To have that response was quite disappointing.
Have you guys spoken about it since?
Oh, yeah, we kind of laugh about it now. I’ve met his partner and it’s wonderful that we can share that.
Would it have been possible to date another athlete when you were competing or would that have been unthinkable?
That would have been unthinkable for me. There was one Russian diver I was attracted to when I was 16. But, I wasn’t really attracted to that many divers. I know that was an issue [when it came to rooming arrangements during competition], “Oh my God, no one wants room with the fag.” But, I thought, “ I really don’t find you attractive so you have nothing to worry about. I’m not gonna jump your bones or anything.” Toward the end of my career the conversation came up again about who would be rooming with whom and (Olympic diver) Kent Ferguson said, “Oh my God you guys, are you kidding me?” We ended up rooming together and became friends. I’m very grateful for him because at the time I was so focused on diving. All I saw was the pool and the hotel room. Kent was more of an explorer. He would say, “Lets go to the red light district in Amsterdam. Lets go here or there or on that tour…” He really got me to see more of the world and I’m so grateful for him. He was kind of like my savior.
Many men had a photo of you in a speedo on their bedroom walls back in the day. Were you able to fully appreciate that when you were in the closet?
I’m generally not crazy about pictures of myself. I don’t pay much attention to it. However, I did have a really bizarre call when I was 16 though. Some gentlemen called my sister’s number and I happened to pick up. He said, “Is this Greg Louganis?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “I have your picture. Can I have your permission to masturbate to it?” I said, “Excuse me? I’m 16! I don’t care what you do with the picture.” It caught me so off guard.
Are fans inclined to share intimate details with you?
Because of the book and sharing my life publically I think a lot of people make the assumption that they know me; that we are intimate friends. It can be a little awkward at times. You don’t know what’s going on in someone else’s mind. I’ve had experiences where someone has said, “Oh my God, we’re soul mates.” [Laughs] And I don’t know these people!
You say in the film, “I wasn’t an activist. Just this athlete who had an Olympic dream.” Yet, in a 1995 press conference you stood in front of microphone and said, “ My name is Greg Louganis. I’m gay and I’m HIV-positive.” Did you feel like you became an activist in that moment?
I didn’t realize it at the time because I was just thinking, “I’m Greg Louganis. I’m known for diving. I’m nothing special.” Now I realize how just being myself and sharing who I am, I am an activist. My husband and I recently went to Nepal and just by being ourselves, we were ambassadors.
In the last few years you have taken on the role of mentor. You worked with the 2012 Olympic team and on the reality show, Splash. Do you like mentoring or would you rather be back up on the platform diving yourself?
I love mentoring. I really want to start a mentoring program where Olympians can reach out to other Olympians and share their thoughts. Generally when you are an Olympian you dedicate your entire life to a sport. Then you got to the Olympics. You’re either successful or your not, and then what? You have to transition. A lot of athletes transition well because they have the support of their family and friends and they had the foresight to plan ahead. Not all Olympians have that.
You talk about the difficulty of gay athletes coming out, and say “it would be nice when it’s not an issue.” Were you surprised when fellow diver Tom Daley came out this year to little controversy?
Not really. I met Tom years ago at the World Junior Championships in Tucson. I just adored the kid. He’s a kind soul, wonderful to all of his fans. Appreciative. A really sweet guy. Somebody coming out in a team sport like Jason Collins and Michael Sams-that kind of blows me away. In team sports you really have to rely on your teammates to be successful. I think it’s less of an issue for divers.
You say you had to be the best diver there was because you thought it was “the only thing I had to offer.” If you spend decades with that as your focus, what did you feel like when you retired at the age of 28?
I lost my identity. I think that’s very common. No matter how successful an Olympian is we all go through that. It becomes so much of our identity. It’s your life. I had my background in theater and my acting pursuits but I kept those worlds very separate [from the diving world]. A lot of people didn’t realize how much training I did for acting and dance and being in front of a camera. It was an odd transition because I was also extracting myself from this abusive relationship. There was so much going on personally and legally. There was a lot happening.
Unlike Mary Lou Retton, who walked away from the 1984 Olympics with multiple endorsement deals, you got only one- Speedo. How important is it for an Olympian to obtain endorsement deals and were you angry when you didn’t get more?
It really didn’t hit me until after the fact. I thought, Oh my God, I never got a Wheaties Box! That was very disappointing, but that wasn’t the reason I was doing what I was doing. I was very focused on my own performance; focused on diving and trying to better myself. When I started in 1976 it was just the beginning, that was the tip of the iceberg with endorsement deals. In 1972 it was Mark Spitz. In 1976 it was Bruce Jenner. In 1980 there was the boycott. [The United States boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow.] There were so many incredible stories that came out of the 1984 Olympics and so many American champions. But everything went to Mary Lou. I think I would have benefitted much more if I’d had less personal turmoil and more input from a mentor.
Would you still like the cover of that Wheaties Box?
[Laughs] I’m not gonna turn down anything! Having said that, I’m also coming up to my 8th year of sobriety so I’m not gonna be doing alcohol ads. I wouldn’t want to be hypocrite.
You’ve had a lot of obstacles to overcome in your life. You’re an adopted, biracial child who struggled with dyslexia and bullying when you were younger. You survived an abusive relationship and HIV. What has been your biggest challenge?
Forgiveness. That has been the most empowering trait that I have been able to possess. Forgiving myself for the bad decisions I made. I’ve long since forgiven Jim and that whole situation. I’ve forgiven my dad for his shortcomings. Understanding that people generally do the best they can with what they have. Accepting that and being at peace with that.
You hit your head on the diving board over 25 years ago yet, much like Nancy Kerrigan, your distinguished Olympic career will always be associated with that incident. Does that bother you or is it just par for the course now?
When the news first hit about my HIV status in 1995 and I was criticized for not telling the doctor [who treated Louganis at the 1988 summer Olympics]. I was in a country that I would not have been allowed into had they known my HIV status. That was the climate of HIV at that moment in time. I may have been the brunt of criticism, but it forced people to take a look at it. It forced people to talk about it. It forced people to learn how get HIV and how you can’t get HIV. So, it turned out to be very empowering and meaningful.