When he’s not helping celebrities climb that diving board ladder on ABC’s SPLASH, Olympic champion Greg Louganis is out and about advocating for the rights of LGBTers and individuals living with HIV/AIDS. Check out our February 2008 cover story interview with one of the greatest sports heroes ever.
Though retired from the boards, Greg Louganis plunges into other waters and discusses with A&U’s Dann Dulin How He uses his skills to teach others, his personal program for confronting HIV, adherence and depression, and his joyful dog days
He hasn’t treaded lightly since his gold medal wins at the 1988 Olympics. Greg Louganis is out about being gay, about depression, abusive relationships, dyslexia, drug and alcohol abuse, and he’s out about being HIV-positive. He certainly hasn’t lived on the sidelines, and he continues to evolve—and involve—himself. “I think the driving force for me personally is knowledge of truth and struggling for truth in my life,” says a composed, relaxed Louganis from his home in the Malibu hills.
Louganis’s last dive was twelve years ago for the Make a Wish Foundation. He granted the wish to a high school student who was battling a life-threatening illness at the time.
They arranged to meet at USC and Louganis coached him. Seeing how serious and passionate he was, Greg donned his suit and joined him on the boards. Today, the fellow is doing fine and works for a large business firm. Louganis occasionally receives an e-mail from him.
“Diving has given me a platform, but I’ve always known that I had a greater purpose than what was obvious. I wasn’t just put on this earth to be a diver,” declares Louganis in a soft, almost flippant tone. He’s been proving that for some time. For nine years he’s been an agility coach for canines and enjoys his work immensely. Through the years he’s built up an extensive acting résumé of stage, TV, and film work. In his current project, Watercolors, he plays a “bastard coach.” He’s also authored several books. Louganis’s autobiography, Breaking The Surface, was turned into a film starring Mario Lopez, who delivered a splendid mirror-portrayal performance of Louganis. His latest book is For the Life of Your Dog. In 2004 and 2005, he teamed up with his friend, actor Chad Allen [A&U, June 2006], to tour the country speaking about their personal battles with depression and anxiety, an issue Louganis talked about in his first A&U interview thirteen years ago [September/October 1995].
Currently, Louganis is traveling the U.S. on the Tour of Champions, speaking out about his experiences with HIV to promote awareness and prevention. Sponsored by Medco, a pharmacy benefit management company, Louganis joins six former Olympic athletes who all deal with and educate others about their own chronic medical conditions: Bruce Jenner, who lives with arthritis; Mark Spitz, who fights high cholesterol; Peggy Fleming, a breast cancer survivor; Bob Beamon, a diabetic; and Jackie Joyner-Kersee, an asthmatic. They’re promoting a new project that enables specially trained pharmacists to be available twenty-four hours a day to answer questions about daily medication for chronic ailments.
Appearing dapper in eggshell-colored cargo shorts, a sporty, rust-colored knit shirt and navy blue Crocs topped with fake fur around the edges, Greg’s bronze skin highlights his neatly styled silver hair and the diamond chip in his left ear. His face glows and he cuts a healthy, robust figure. Could it be partly due to a new love interest, Daniel?! Earlier, when we arrived, Daniel had let us in through the electronic gate. He is a self-proclaimed computer geek and a former diver from Connecticut. He and Greg met in April 2007 and they now live together in Greg’s hillside hacienda. “We met on-line on a mostly straight site!” gushes Greg. Then he instantly adds, “I’ve found that gays are more serious about potential relationships on these sites moreso than gay sites. I’ve met some guys that I’m still friends with.” He takes a breath and coos, “He’s such a sweetheart.” As he says this, he eyes Daniel who works at his computer in a nearby room.
Greg sits beneath a cathedral ceiling in an eighties-style, geometric-patterned, purplish swivel arm chair in his living room. Behind him, a window frames a lavish view of the oceanside landscape. Greg has owned this place for twenty-two years and with the stained brown carpeting, nicks in the walls, and chewed furniture, it’s obvious this is a dog household. On top of his entertainment unit is a framed group photograph of himself and Daniel joined by Greg’s former diving coach, Ron O’Brien, and his wife. Then there is a sign that reads, “Don’t piss off the fairies,” along with scattered Harry Potter DVDs. Greg is crazy about the series, even naming a couple of his dogs after Potter monikers. Earlier, when we first entered the house, Greg was just coming up from downstairs. Our eyes met. He extended his hand and said, “Very nice to meet you.” That’s a common ritual. What’s different is that Greg takes that extra second or two to really acknowledge the person he’s meeting. His thoughtful gaze lingers.
Hard to believe, but Greg has been living with HIV for nearly twenty years. Sharing his status publicly and speaking about it has been therapeutic for him, along with his work as a dog trainer. “Dogs are a huge key for me,” admits Greg as he pets Nipper, a Jack Russell, one of his three dogs. To stay healthy he also spins daily, practices Ashtanga yoga, and just recently quit smoking his usual “half to one pack a day.” But, he has gained some weight, which concerns him. “There was a time when I was having a difficult time putting weight on, so then it was like—eat everything! Now, I’ve got to watch it,” he chuckles. “As for meds, I feel very fortunate that I’m reminded of them only twice a day, in the morning and the evening. I’m lucky and manage pretty well,” he says. “Anybody who is on any type of treatment knows that it’s going to work for a couple years and then a few years down the road you’re going to have to change and try something else.
It’s this whole kind of dance.” Greg has been on meds since his diagnosis, starting with AZT. At one point, he decided to go off the meds for a year and a half. “I wasn’t supposed to,” he says timidly cracking half a smile. “I just got tired of the side effects.” But soon his viral load shot up and he went back on the cocktail.
Another concern for an active person like Louganis is pacing himself; not to overdo it in order to avoid taxing his immune system. “If I don’t take time for myself then things start to fall apart,” he points out, hoisting one leg up onto the seat of his chair. “I recently had my third bout with staph infection,” Greg confides. “During that time I was supposed to give a friend of mine an award in New York. I really had to lay low, so I told him that I couldn’t get my ruby slippers on! I felt bad because I really wanted to be there for him.”
Is there anything positive about being positive, I ask. “Lots of things,” says Greg without hesitation. “I’m just not one who goes ‘woe is me’ and throws a pity party. Although I do have those moments, as we all do, but it’s not a place I like to live. Most things I think of as a blessing. [HIV] really helps to keep things in perspective too. Don’t we all have a tendency to take life too seriously?” he asks rhetorically.
Everything Greg has learned in life has contributed to his present career as a canine coach. As a kid he took dance classes, acrobatics, gymnastics, and, of course, diving. These tools have enabled him to, in turn, teach others. “I was taught mental imagery in my first performance by my dance instructor at the age of three. I just thought everyone was raised this way. It wasn’t until the late seventies that the sports psychologists started coming around the pool asking, ‘Have you ever tried mental imagery?’ Duh, doesn’t everybody do that?!” As he pauses a moment, I look up at one of the high walls overhead and study the large, all-white sculpture portrait of a smiling Ryan White holding his hand next to his face, fingers crossed. Greg knew Ryan and considers him his inspiration and guardian angel. Greg continues: “In diving, that was the one thing my coach said that was different between the Chinese and myself. They studied me. I would breathe through my dive. A dive takes less than three seconds. Anybody can hold their breath for three seconds and most divers in difficult dives hold their breath. But I breathe through to utilize the breath for propulsion and increase speed. Where it stemmed from was from my acrobatic training. My instructor would constantly scream, ‘Breathe, breathe, breathe!’ That’s where I learned to breathe through strenuous movements and it just transferred into my diving.” During one of his Olympic trials one diver came up to Greg after a dive and said, “Do you realize that you exhaled at the peak of your dive?” It shattered Greg momentarily. “Totally fucked up my entire training session,” Greg snaps. “My coach was so pissed that this other diver had said anything.”
Greg teaches his technique at elite training camps for the U.S. Diving teams. “I was recently training nine to fourteen year-old kids and the way I teach them is by using a clicker, which is what I use to train dogs. I’m clicking their breaths. They call it tag-teaching,” he explains ecstatically. “I work with performance, teaching people relaxation, visualization and approach to competition, which are the same techniques in the sport of dog agility. It’s all competition. I really enjoy it. A big part of it is just getting out of your own head and getting out of your own way. When competing, many dog owners think that everybody’s out there ringside judging them. I tell them, ‘Don’t flatter yourself. They really don’t give a shit.’”
Another tough challenge for Louganis is chronic depression. He often experiences lethargy and disinterest in life. He’s had manic periods, but not often. “I really enjoyed those! They were fun,” he giggles. His depression began when he was a pre-adolescent. While in his teens he attempted suicide several times. His last attempt was in college. “It was over a guy,” he remarks grimly with a tinge of pathos. “I realized how stupid that was!” He laughs. “Waking up the next morning, it really solidified in my own mind, Why waste my time and energy over something like that? I might be better served trying to figure out why the hell I’m here.”
Psychotherapy has been helpful in managing his depression. Initially, he was on antidepressants but he hasn’t been on them for six years now. “Mostly what I needed to learn was coping skills. My tendency, like so many men in this country, is to be sensitive, and that is not considered an asset. You are looked down upon. We are taught from a very early age to suck it up and keep that stiff upper lip. So you learn to bottle up those feelings. And I got pretty good at it. The problem is that it eats away at you,” observes Greg. He quickly brushes through his hair with the palm of his hand, which he does frequently throughout the interview. “I now have a self-imposed mechanism and that’s my HIV meds. If I find it very difficult to take my meds, then I have to question myself, ‘Okay, what’s going on in my life emotionally?’ It helps me get to the bottom of things. It might be an innocent comment that someone made that I’m making into this monster that doesn’t exist. Maybe it is something that does bother me but I hadn’t realized it was bothering me that much. If I approach this with the other person will they get it? Most times the answer is ‘no.’ So then I just let it go. I send them a blessing and move on,” he says, adding that it gets better with practice.
An avid reader, Louganis is presently following the path laid out in Dr. Wayne Dyer’s Power of Intent. “I know if you’re in the midst of a depressive episode it’s really, really hard [to see through it], but I find that getting outside yourself helps. Whether it’s donating your time to a children’s hospital handing out teddy bears, or going to an animal shelter to bathe dogs.” Greg places his finger on his forehead momentarily. “The best way to deal with depression is to maintain a healthy barometer to detect it.”
Indeed, as life can throw you a curveball. When his mother died in 2004, it was brutal for Greg. Though he had been sober for nine years, he began drinking again. He worked through addiction issues with a therapist, but, at that time, he was not seeing one. “One time I rear-ended somebody and had a blood alcohol of .18. I was in jail for one night,” he says remorsefully, blushing. “I realized then that I had to do something different to get back on that [sober] road again. So I am going to AA meetings now.”
With that we take a short break before the photo shoot. I exit to the bathroom. There, in the magazine rack I spy the magazines Teaching Tolerance, Dog Sport, and a hardback edition of one of the Harry Potter novels. When I return, Greg is playing catch with the dogs. The activity eventually leads outdoors to the agility court a few feet from the front door which overlooks the Pacific Ocean. For quite some time we watch Greg in his element. He has a passionate, gentle manner and he beams with pride.
After the photo shoot, we walk back to the house and Greg tells me that he’s surprised by the attitude of some of the younger people at his speaking engagements. “I run into so many who say, ‘Oh, you look so great,’ and they think because I do look healthy that HIV/AIDS is manageable. I don’t ever want to give that message to anyone who is not positive that these meds are a silver bullet. I share with them all of the side effects of the protease inhibitors, including horrible diarrhea. I did the IL-2 treatments for a period of time and the side effects were disgusting. It’s a week out of your life for a fucking treatment. It’s not quality of life,” he announces intensely ending on a high-pitch. As we approach the front door to his home, I notice that the doormat reads, “It’s a dog’s life.” Greg sums up, choosing his words carefully. “It’s important for non-HIV-positive people to understand that there are consequences to reckless behavior.”
Jump in at www.greglouganis.com. A wet kiss goes
to Sherri Lewis and a special thank you to Davidd Batalon and Mark Rebernik for their creative brains.
Dann Dulin is Senior Editor of A&U.