Greg Louganis – Sports Heroes: Diving

Eric Marcus

The acclaimed author of Breaking the Surface remembers the first time he met the diving champ

I had planned to greet him in the grand lobby of my turn-of-the-century building, fearing that if he saw the tiny studio apartment that was both my home and office, he would think I wasn’t successful enough to write his autobiography. It never occurred to me that he’d be early. As I was putting on my jacket, the doorman rang up to let me know that “Greg” was at the front desk. “Tell him to wait,” I said in a panic. “I’ll be right down.”

By the time the ancient elevator reached the ground floor, I could hardly breathe. The doors opened, and for a couple of seconds I just stood there, looking out into the high-ceilinged room at Greg Louganis. Living legend. American hero. Four-time Olympic gold medalist. Gay–although closeted–icon. How strange to see him on my territory, standing all by himself, fully clothed. Of course he was fully clothed–it was the dead of winter in New York City–but in my mind’s eye Greg Louganis was always clad in a Speedo bathing suit, perched on the edge of a diving board, moments away from fearlessly and flawlessly launching himself into space.

I have only vague memories of watching Greg Louganis win the silver medal at the 1976 Olympics; it was at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles that he really registered on my radar. He was a compelling and astonishingly graceful athlete who was also very beautiful, sweetly shy, and, I assumed, gay. It was an assumption confirmed for me by a 1984 profile in GQ magazine, which included a picture of Greg at home with his live-in “manager.” I didn’t have to read very closely between the lines to figure out that Greg’s manager was his lover. I was embarrassed for Greg that he felt the need to hide and did it so imperfectly, but hiding was what virtually all gay and lesbian elite athletes did in 1984–and still do, with rare exception.

Despite Greg’s public charade, I rooted for him as one of my own. Part of why I cheered for him had to do with my own complicated relationship with athletics. While I could always do more chin-ups than most of my classmates and was pretty fast on my feet, I was a bust when it came to competitive sports like softball and basketball. So here was Greg, a gay man who could stand up to the straight boys and leave them in his wake. How could I not cheer him on or feel good about his accomplishments?

By the 1988 Olympics I was already well on the way to seeing Greg as something other than human, projecting my idealized fantasies onto a person I didn’t know at all. In Seoul, Greg’s terrifying encounter with a diving board and his extraordinary comeback to win two gold medals elevated him in my eyes to hero status. Greg’s humility in his breathtaking return to the diving board and the bandaged teddy bear he carried with him throughout the competition only enhanced my positive feelings toward him. He was a hero with a heart. And when he stood on the podium with tears streaming down his face, I cried too, not knowing my tears had nothing to do with his.

After the Olympics I didn’t think much about Greg Louganis. If I thought about him at all, it was with a passing wish that he’d finally come out and become the kind of role model I believed young gay people needed as well as take a more active role in AIDS education. Given who he was, I knew he could make a world of difference. I also wanted Greg to come out so I could add him to the pantheon of famous gay and lesbian people who made me feel better about myself. It was Greg’s obligation to come out and take his place among the exalted and serve as the kind of example I thought he should be. I felt perfectly free to decide what Greg should do and to make judgments about him for making the choices he did.

When my life very unexpectedly crossed paths with Greg’s in December 1993, he was performing in Paul Rudnick’s off-Broadway hit Jeffrey, dying every night of AIDS complications in the character of Darius, a young gay man who danced in the chorus of Cats. I rolled my eyes when I read an interview with Greg in The New York Times in which he inelegantly skirted the issue of his sexual orientation. But that didn’t keep me from jumping at the opportunity to meet with Greg when I heard he was thinking about doing his autobiography.

Between the time of our initial, very brief telephone conversation and our meeting date, I had mapped out Greg’s book, complete with a happy ending in which he came to terms with his sexual orientation and entered into the world of national polities as a gay rights champion and AIDS activist. I didn’t stop to think that I had no idea who Greg Louganis was, apart from the idealized man who inhabited my imagination.

I remember thinking, as I walked across the lobby of my building, that Greg looked smaller than I expected, but there was that sweet face I knew so well from television and photographs. I introduced myself, and we shook hands. Greg was clearly nervous, but I was too focused on my own anxiety over meeting the world-famous Olympic diving champion for his anxiety to register.

It wasn’t until we stepped out into the cold and Greg lit up a cigarette that the spell was broken. A cigarette! Greg Louganis doesn’t smoke, I thought. I had no idea that Greg’s smoking would be the least of the revelations that would emerge as I got to know the real Greg Louganis. Over the days and weeks that followed, I was forced to set aside the idealized man I’d created and to accept the very human person that Greg is.

Looking back, I feel a little foolish that I did what we so often do as a culture in elevating mere mortals–however talented–into something beyond human, only to be disappointed when we discover their all-too-human flaws. Ironically, with Greg there was also a sense of comfort that went along with the disappointment. That he was a complicated, flawed man who had known more than his fair share of trouble, despite his four gold medals, made me feel better about my own accomplishments and grateful for the life I’d achieved. It was Greg’s humanity, after all, that allowed me to admire his accomplishments and at the same time honor my own.

Months after Greg and I started working on his autobiography, Breaking the Surface, during a conversation we were having about the first time we met, Greg asked me why I had made him wait in the lobby of my building. From the way he asked, I had the sense that I’d hurt his feelings by giving the impression that I was keeping him at arm’s length. I explained that I was afraid he would think I wasn’t successful enough to work with him on his book if he saw how modestly I lived. He laughed and said, “You goofball, you know I’m not like that.” And, indeed, I now did.

Marcus is the author of Together Forever: Gay and Lesbian Marriage; Making History: The Struggle for Gay and Lesbian Equal Rights, 1945 to 1990; Is It a Choice? and Why Suicide? and coauthor of Breaking the Surface; Icebreaker: The Autobiography of Rudy Galindo; and Straight From the Heart: A Love Story.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Liberation Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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