The first thing you notice about Greg Louganis is his smile. His in-your-face Cheshire Cat grin is so big it’s as if some of the furniture in the Beverly Hilton Hotel, where he’s spent the day talking to members of the media, had to be removed just to accommodate it.
The four-time Olympic gold medalist has reason to smile these days. He has returned to diving as a mentor for athletes with their sites set on the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. Recent changes in the law allowed him to marry his partner, Johnny Chaillot, two years ago. And, a new HBO documentary, “Back on Board: Greg Louganis,” is airing Tuesday, Aug. 4, that recounts his life story.
Louganis hasn’t always had a reason to smile. When he was younger, he tried to commit suicide. He’s spent his entire life dealing with dyslexia. At the time when he should have been reaping the harvest of winning Olympic medals in the 1976, 1984 and 1988, Louganis revealed to the world that he was gay — and that he had tested HIV positive.
This was a time when much-heralded athletes revealing their sexuality wasn’t greeted with a hero’s honor. It was also a time when being HIV positive was all but certainly considered a death sentence.
“I was diagnosed with HIV six months prior to the Olympic Games in 1988. And so I honestly, I knew those were my last competitive dives because we still viewed HIV/AIDS as a death sentence, and I never thought I’d see 30. And then 30 goes by. And then 40 goes by. I’m 55,” Louganis says. “So then I’m like going, oh, (expletive deleted), I got to get a job. What am I going to do? I don’t plan too far ahead because my husband is always encouraging me to do what’s in front of me to the best of my ability. And, you know, that’s how I make it through my day.”
A key moment for Louganis — when he finally decided that he was not going to let the bigotry of the world or his health issues defeat him —came in 2010 when he was inducted into the San Diego Hall of Champions.
He had no idea what he was going to say at the ceremonies. Then he got a letter from a young man from Salem, Oregon, who said 15 years ago he had signed all of his memorabilia.
“He said he had a picture of me and my Great Dane, Ryan Luke,” says Louganis, who signed the picture and autographed it for the canine with a paw print he drew. The young man told Louganis that the moment he drew that paw print was the moment he decided not to kill himself.
The smile leaves Louganis’ face for a moment as he goes silent.
“That was like a sign,” he says. “This was what I was looking for. We have since become friends and he’s in a very good place.”
As is Louganis.
Those kind of moments are why he was willing to allow cameras to follow him for three years for the HBO documentary. He doesn’t hide the fact that what he’s faced over the years has caused him deep pain. The focus for him now is that despite all that’s happened to him, reasons are plentiful to face another day with a smile.
Director Cheryl Furjanic had the task to tell the story of one of the first openly gay athletes in America. This was not her first time in the documentary pool. She made the film “Sink or Swim,” a look at synchronized swimmers. The idea for the documentary on Louganis came when her producer, Will Sweeney, read an article in 2010 that Louganis was returning to diving as a mentor and a coach.
Furjanic began to ask why the greatest diver in the world was away from diving for 20 years.
“People who are sort of under 27 or under 30 didn’t really know who he was because they hadn’t heard his name in their lifetime. And so that was a really kind of interesting information to discover along the way,” Furjanic says. “We pitched this idea to him. He said that sounds great. So we started working together.”
Louganis put no restrictions on what the cameras could capture. One moment includes a very special time of emotional healing in regards to his father, who died of cancer in 1991. Cameras rolled as Louganis finally found the strength to go through his father’s possessions more than a decade after his passing.
“I saw that he kept every score of my Olympics and other competitions. I was just blown away because I didn’t always have a great relationship with my dad. We had some difficult times. But I’m grateful that we were able to come full circle. I took care of him the last six weeks of his life. We really made peace with each other, and I realize he did the best he could at that moment in time with the tools that he had. And he loved me and I loved him,” Louganis says.
The documentary looks at his masterful work on the diving board, the head injury he sustained during a preliminary event at the 1988 games that created such a furor because of his HIV status and the aftermath of how unlike other great Olympians, Louganis never earned the same accolades or financial gain.
His success in the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles, where he won gold medals in the 10M Platform and 3M Springboard (a feat he would repeat four years later in Seoul), should have made him a bona fide star.
“There were so many stories at the ’84 Olympic games, incredible stories, Edwin Moses. There’s all kinds of other stories, mine included, but the advertisers just rallied around Mary Lou Retton,” Louganis says.
The lack of endorsements didn’t bother him because Louganis says he was in the sport for the love of it and the pride he felt from his achievements.
“I really wasn’t in it for the money,” he says. “But it was an interesting journey.”
It’s a journey that has given him plenty of days of sitting in a corner and crying. But with recent events, including the HBO documentary that will introduce his diving skills to a new generation, there are plenty of reasons for Louganis to keep smiling these days.
‘Back on Board: Greg Louganis’
- 10 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 4, HBO