Greg Louganis: When I start getting down and I don’t feel quite right, then the most important thing… get outside, go for a walk. It really changes your body chemistry just to get out into nature and also out of your head so you’re not so caught up in thinking the same thoughts over and over again.
Sam Sanchez: It’s Time to Walk, where some of the world’s most interesting and inspiring people share stories, photos, and songs that have influenced their lives.
As part of a series on world-class athletes, this episode features champion diver and five-time Olympic medalist Greg Louganis. He’s the first male diver to win gold medals at two Olympic Games in a row, in the 3-meter springboard and 10-meter platform events. On this walk, Greg talks about discovering a family he didn’t know he had and why dealing with adversity can be empowering.
Greg Louganis: I’m walking my dogs, Pax, my Pyrenean shepherd, and Roxie, my Russell terrier. And we’re here at El Campeon Ranch. This is really close to where I live in Southern California. It’s nice and warm on this horse ranch with all these beautiful animals that are out and about and squirrels that are running by and the mountains with the rocks and the greenery that are just nestled into the hillside.
We’re going to go around this incredible property and end up at this beautiful creek that feeds into this pond.
I think they found a lizard. Hey, girls.
[SOUND OF WALKING]
I had been competing in diving since I was nine years old. And in the U.S., if you really wanted to excel in diving, there were basically four coaches. And Ron O’Brien was one of those coaches. Watching his coaching style, I really appreciated it. He seemed to be really positive and that I felt that we would mesh. But I didn’t start diving full-time with Ron O’Brien until I was 18, until ’78.
And so, when I started diving with Ron, he and his wife, Mary Jane, had a barbecue. And so had a bunch of the divers over, and Ron pulled me aside. And he said, “You know, I noticed something about your diving.” He said, “When you’re in a good mood and it looks like you’re having fun, you dive really well.”
I said, “Yeah, I can be kind of moody. And so, if you see me and I’m not smiling and having fun, you have permission to kick me in the butt.”
So we were in Berlin. So it was my first World Championships. And the weather was miserable. It was so cold and rainy. And I’m a fair-weather diver. So I was not doing well. And I was in the shower under the three-meter springboard to get warm.
And all of a sudden, I feel this boot in my butt, and I turn around, and I see Ron’s back walking away from me. Then I got into the elevator. They had an elevator to the 10-meter platform. And so I was riding the elevator up, and I was thinking, “Oh, my god, I told Ron O’Brien that he had permission to kick me in the butt if I wasn’t having a good time.”
And so I started laughing, realizing that that’s what he was communicating to me. And I did my front three-and-a-half pike, and I nailed it. I ripped it. And he started laughing. He said, “That’s more like it.” And so that was really the beginning of breaking the walls down for us in our relationship, to learn to love and trust each other.
And so my last Olympic Games was in 1988 in Seoul, Korea. And that was an amazing competition because it took all of our love, trust, faith, and respect in each other to get through that because on the ninth dive in the preliminaries of the men’s three-meter springboard, on the takeoff, I knew I was a little back on the board. And I stood up a little too straight, and I knew I was going to be close, but usually when you’re close on a dive like that, you’re worried about your hands being in the way and hitting the board.
And so I took off the board, did my reverse two-and-a-half, spotted the water, spotted the water, started coming out of the dive, made sure that my arms were wide so I… they would make it past the diving board. And then, all of a sudden, I heard this big, hollow thud, and I went crashing into the water.
And I was thinking, “What the hell was that?”
Announcer 1: Watch his hips in relation to his heels. Right there, his weight is too far back. Consequently the dive goes straight up. It does not move away. Greg knows he’s close because of the way he comes out with his hands tucked in close. But there…
Announcer 2: And he knows he’s in trouble right there.
Announcer 1: There, as you see, takes that glancing blow to his head.
[END NBC CLIP]
The first emotion that I felt was I was embarrassed. I mean, here we are at the Olympic Games. I’m a world champion, Olympic champion, and I go and hit my head on the diving board in front of the world.
I was trying to figure out, “How do I get out of the pool without anybody seeing me?” And then… And then I realized I was paralyzed by fear.
Six months prior to that, I was diagnosed HIV-positive. There wasn’t a whole lot of compassion or understanding or knowledge surrounding HIV. I mean, I was in a country, in Seoul, Korea, that, had they known my HIV status, I would not have been allowed into the country.
My coach, Ron O’Brien, and I were the only ones on the pool deck who knew about my HIV status. And so I was terrified. There was so much fear surrounding HIV/AIDS at that time. In 1988, we thought of HIV/AIDS as a death sentence. There wasn’t a whole lot of education happening. It was really a terrifying time for people living with HIV/AIDS and the stigma surrounding it.
A lot of the attitude around the world was, “Oh, well, it’s killing the right people, IV drug users and prostitutes and gay men.” And so there’s that kind of guilt to that you’re also kind of absorbing. No matter how illogical that is, I mean, you still kind of absorb a bit of that. It was a scary time.
Ron really helped me in that moment because he knew the story. He was right there by my side, never wavered. And so then Ron got the doctor, and they sewed my head up. And Ron said, “Let’s take a walk.” And so on our walk, it was like, “Oh, hockey players, they get 30 stitches and get back on the ice. You got five stitches in your head. It’s nothing.” And… So we were just laughing, just making light of the whole situation. And then, before I went up to do my dive, he reminded me. He said, “You know, this was a fluke, and it’s a fluke that happened. Just do the dives the way that you’ve been doing in practice, and you’ll be fine. You can walk away, and I’m going to support you. You don’t have to get back out there. No one would fault you for not getting back up there.”
And it was kind of a knee-jerk reaction. I said, “Ron, we worked too long and hard to get here, and I don’t want to give up without a fight.” And so I got set. They announced my dive, “Greg Louganis, United States, reverse one-and-a-half with three and a half twists,” which is moving in the same direction that I hit the board on.
And so I heard an audible gasp from the audience, and then I felt like my… my heart was beating outside my chest. So I pounded my chest, indicating that my heart was pounding outside of my chest. And the people around who saw started laughing, and I started laughing. And so I jumped that dive up and did the dive and got in the water. I was so relieved, you know, when I was in the water, but the crowd was just going nuts. And, as it turned out, it was the highest-scoring dive of that Olympic Games.
The funny thing about the 1988 Olympic Games is that the one big event that everybody seems to remember is I hit my head on the springboard on my reverse two-and-a-half pike, but I came back and won.
I just felt so much appreciation and gratitude and honored that he stayed by my side because I’m a firm believer you don’t achieve greatness on your own. There’s always somebody there who’s right by your side and who helps you through. And he was that for me, you know, to get through that challenging time.
And so, on the last night, after all the competitions, we’re supposed to share our thoughts of those Olympic Games. And I went up to the microphone, and I said, “You know,” turned to Ron… I said, “Nobody will ever know what we’ve just been through,” because I honestly believed that nobody would know because my thought was, “I’m HIV-positive. I’m not going to see 30.” And I was going to take this to the grave.
And after I said that, I just started sobbing. I went over to him, and we just hugged, and we honestly believed that nobody would know. And here I am at 61, and being able to tell these stories and share these stories is just beyond amazing to me.
He was more interested in me as a person and embraced me as a whole person and not just my diving. And that is, in my mind’s eye, unconditional love. And I think that’s where that trust comes from. I mean, a lot of kids don’t get that from their parents because there’s contingencies. “Oh, I’ll love you as long as you get through Harvard. I’ll love you…” I mean, there’s contingencies. And to have that unconditional love and trust in that, I mean, it is so empowering. And I think I could not have gotten through that Olympic Games without Ron O’Brien. It’s a testament to what love can do, really.
[SOUND OF WALKING]
My biological mother was 16 when she had me. So I was conceived when she was 15. And I was thrown right into foster care, and then eventually I was adopted when I was nine months old. And I guess you could say I had kind of a rough start.
The one thing that, that I learned was my mother never held me. And I didn’t realize how much of an impact that can have on a kid. When I was growing up, I felt like a throwaway child, you know, because I was adopted, and my mother didn’t want me. But it’s hard for kids who are adopted trying to find themselves, who they are and where they come from.
And when I was a kid going through some really challenging times, I mean, I was such a rebellious kid. I was horrible. But I felt that, if my biological parents couldn’t love me, then nobody could love me. So I was really hard on the parents who raised me. I mean, I spent my 13th birthday in juvenile hall. I mean, that’s how out-of-control I was.
But one of the… you know, one of the things that was on my release was that I had to come straight home from school and help my mom with chores around the house. And it was funny because, like, I would start… I would tell her dirty jokes, and I’d think I’d be shocking her, and then she’d come back with an even dirtier joke. And it was like, “Oh, my god.” And I would be blushing. And so I grew to understand that my mother loved me. My mother loved me unconditionally, and so that was really an incredible lesson.
But in 1984, after the Olympic Games, I had this event in Honolulu, Hawaii. And my host came to me and said, “Greg, your dad’s here.”
And I said, “Oh, my god, my… my dad’s in San Diego. He would’ve told me if he was coming to Hawaii or something.”
And he goes, “No, no, no, your biological father.”
I was like, “Oh, wow.”
And so, I was a little skeptical, but I agreed to meet him. And so, when he was coming to me and I was seeing him for the first time, I was thinking, “Okay, he’s short and very, you know, Polynesian features, you know, Samoan.” He was full-blooded Samoan. And I was just like, “I don’t know that I see the resemblance.” The funny thing was, I don’t even know that he introduced himself. And his name is Fouvale Lutu.
And then he came to me, and I… he started talking. He speaks kind of broken English. You know, it’s a combination of Samoan, pidgin, you know, all of that, and English. So I didn’t always understand what he was saying, but it was really very emotional for him. He was crying, expressing that, you know, he wanted to raise me. It wasn’t his choice to give me up.
And so then, as time went on, whenever I was doing anything in Honolulu, Hawaii, he would always show up, and he’d always come with his wife. He’d bring my half-brother, one of my two half-sisters, and they would always be there.
And then I learned that that there was going to be a Lutu family reunion. And so I reached out to my half-brother, Malcolm. I said, “Malcolm, do you think it would be okay if I came to the reunion?” And he goes, “Oh, my god, that’d be so awesome. Everybody would be so happy because now they could talk about you because if you’re talking about you, then they could share that we are related.”
I think I knew in my heart that this was my dad. And so it just verified what I felt I already knew. You know, once I got the pieces of the puzzle put together, it was really exciting because I had no idea about the Polynesian culture. So I knew that it was going to be an incredible journey and education about a whole new culture. And so that was one of the things that I was really excited about.
The first part of the reunion was we had a picnic. And so I was meeting all… all of these different families, cousins and uncles and aunts. It was cool because I was able to see kind of that cultural gathering of the family and how they really revere their elders because Dad was now an elder. And just to see how the family dynamics of how the young kids would… you know, would be in service to the elders, walking around the Polynesian Cultural Center with umbrellas to make sure that they were shaded, make sure that the elders got their food, were served first.
And the thing that really struck me was that there seemed to be a little tension between Malcolm and myself, and I didn’t quite understand what that was all about. But after seeing how everybody kind of gathered around the elders, I realized that, “Oh, my god, I am in line to be an elder, and I don’t know anything about this culture.” And so then I reached out to Malcolm - and he’s bigger than me. I mean, he’s a powerlifter. I mean, he’s just this big guy.
And I told him, I said, “I always wanted a big brother, and as far as I’m concerned, you’re my big brother because even though I’m older, I know nothing about the Polynesian culture, the Samoan culture.” And I’m looking to learn from him, that I look to him as my elder. And then, you know, once I made that declaration, it was like, “Oh, okay.” You know, he… he seemed to relax a bit more.
I’ve had so many people reach out to me who are adopted who ask about what that journey was like and the challenges that they have, you know, like my rebellion and feeling like a throwaway child and navigating through being adopted and, also, finding your biological parents because that can be traumatic. It can be devastating.
And, I mean, it really has been a blessing for me. It’s a whole new family. It’s a whole new culture. And to see that kind of love and acceptance in this whole new culture, it really gives me a broader picture of what acceptance looks like.
[SOUND OF WALKING]
Leading up to the 1988 Olympic Games, there was this one competition.
And we were staying in the dorms. So, you know, we’re all sharing common space, usually, you know, sharing a room, common bathroom area and all that. And so this was around the time that “Ghostbusters”, the movie, came out. And so there were signs, I guess, that were posted all across the dorms with the not sign, the “Ghostbusters” not sign and slang for homosexual. Basically, “Beat the homosexual.”
And I knew it was basically directed to me because people in USA Diving knew about my sexual identity and all that. And I was open to friends and family. And it was just my policy not to discuss my sexual identity with members of the media. And, oh, my god, I remember one of my teammates, she was so upset. You know, she went on about, “Oh, these divers are so small-minded,” and this and that.
And it’s like, “Oh, you mean about the campaign that’s going on?”
And she goes, “How do you know about that?” because she had been running around the dorms tearing down all of the signs. So she didn’t think I knew about it.
I said, “Uh, you missed the signs in the men’s room.” So then she realized that I knew about this.
And I said, “You know what? Actually, I’m kind of flattered because I’m not in all that great shape. I don’t see myself as a threat. But if they’re doing this, then obviously they see me as a threat.”
And so… Yeah, so, I mean, we went through the competition, and it’s human nature to root for the underdog. And by the time this competition was happening, I was no longer the underdog. And so everybody was pretty much cheering against me.
And it came down to the last dive. And the one person who was the most vocal about this whole campaign that was going on, he was leading going into the last dive. And so I’m getting ready for my last dive, and I did my reverse three-and-a-half, did a nice dive, and then the guy who was the most vocal who was leading going into that dive, he missed his dive a little bit. And so I ended up winning.
And it’s customary, when I was going up to receive my first place award, you know, you congratulate each person, go down the line and congratulate each person. Every single competitor shook my hand and congratulated me. Came up to this person, and he turned his back to me. He would not shake my hand and not even acknowledge me.
It just made me sad because, as it turns out, I mean, he… he was facing his own demons, and I kind of sensed that. I kind of knew. He came out later in life. I think, a lot of times, if there’s a negative feeling, it comes from that person’s own insecurity. When somebody has really strong negative emotions toward anyone or anything, it doesn’t define that person or thing. It defines the person who’s expressing that anger. There can be so much healing that happens in recognizing that and making peace with that. And I think it’s an important lesson.
[SOUND OF WALKING AND CREEK FLOWING]
So here we are. We’ve arrived at the little creek. Oh, my god. You can hear the water. And the water’s this blue-green. It really is stunning. I wonder if there’s any frogs in here. Oh, there’s a fishy, little fishy and dragonflies, great little waterfall.
[SOUND OF WATERFALL CRASHING]
Music really helped me in my diving career not only just, like, motivationally but everything, everything: sports, comedy, acting. It all has a rhythm. It all has a timing. It’s funny because, like, when I think of my dives, if something goes amiss, I don’t think about what went wrong. What I think about is, how do I change the tempo to be successful? Because oftentimes it’s all about that timing. It’s all about that rhythm, you know, and that’s what music has the power to give us.
A lot of the theme music that jets out from the Olympic Games is so meaningful and impactful. And I remember in 1988, Whitney Houston, and her singing that song, “One Moment in Time”. It was… It was so wonderful just to be a part of that, you know, a little snippet, you know, a little section.
[MUSIC FADES IN]
And I just never thought anybody would understand the meaning and the impact. So, yeah, that was really powerful.
[MUSIC - “ONE MOMENT IN TIME” BY WHITNEY HOUSTON]
I saw this clip about John Denver and the story that he shared about when he wrote “Calypso”, that it just… He couldn’t get it. He couldn’t get it. He couldn’t get it. And he had put all these deadlines up for himself, and he went past it, and he went past it, and then finally just let it go. And then the song came to him. And it’s so beautiful and brilliant and just captures so much of his spirit.
[MUSIC - “CALYPSO” BY JOHN DENVER]
Music has been such an important part of my life. I mean, I started as a dancer. So it was so much musical theater. And I, I really love musical theater, and I remember “The Wiz”. I loved the music from “The Wiz”. Usually I venture towards the original Broadway cast, but the Diana Ross version of “Believe in Yourself” from “The Wiz” is really extraordinary. [GREG LOUGANIS QUOTES LINE FROM “BELIEVE IN YOURSELF”]
[MUSIC - “BELIEVE IN YOURSELF” BY DIANA ROSS]
God, I feel so energized after the walk. I mean, it’s exhausting, but the thing is, you know, just getting out and moving and being in nature and sharing stories, just I love that. You know, it’s so… so what we need in this world and so, so much of who we are.
Thank you for taking the time to walk with me today.