Greg Louganis: Far From Falling

The iconic athlete and activist reflects on his extraordinary life in the new HBO Sports documentary 'Back on Board'

Greg Louganis soars in HBO Sports' 'Back on Board.' Credit: International Swimming Hall of Fame

A little over a year ago, Greg Louganis watched as the audience at San Francisco's Castro Theatre booed Larry King. Louganis was 54 years old – an age that seemed an impossibility when he first tested positive for HIV in 1988 – attending a screening of the documentary about his extraordinary life, Back on Board, at the Frameline Film Festival.

In 1993, losing weight and five years removed from an HIV diagnosis, he was so certain he'd die that he decided to throw himself a final birthday party, for the purpose of saying goodbye to his friends and family. Instead, he lived, and contacted the writer Eric Marcus in hopes of publishing a memoir. He didn't know of any famous athletes who'd publicly stated that they were gay and HIV-positive. So he came out, made the television circuit and published a memoir called Breaking the Surface: The Greg Louganis Story.



Now the Castro screen was showing a portion of his media blitz. In the clip, he's a 35-year-old Olympic champion discussing his illness on prime-time television, and Larry King is a guy wearing suspenders finding it very difficult not to literally point an accusatory finger. 



Larry King: "How would a smart guy like you practice unsafe sex?"


Greg Louganis: [pregnant pause] "I – I'm not following."


King: [zero pause] "How'd you get AIDS?"


Louganis: "Um, I'm sure I was probably exposed before they knew about unsafe sex."


King: "Oh, so you're pretty sure of that?"


Louganis: "Yeah."


King: "Do you feel [finger pointed at Louganis] in yourself that you might live a long while?"


Louganis: "Yeah, I think so. I hope so."


King: "You're confident? Think or hope [finger pointed again] is a different thing. Are you confident?"



The Castro audience jeered, but Louganis, who is prone to charitable understatement, saw it differently.

"It's reflective of how much education needed to be done," he says. "Sure, I'm an Olympic gold medalist, but I'm just like everybody else. There's nothing extraordinary about me. I'm just a person, and yes, I make bad decisions just like everybody else and trust the wrong people at times.

"So it was important to share that, so that people can realize, 'Hey, it can happen to anybody,'" he continues. "There's a certain empowerment to that. That can be very empowering when they say, 'Gosh, if this could happen to Greg Louganis and I'm just me, then I can get through this too.'"



Probably the greatest diver in history, Louganis competed in the 1976, 1984 and 1988 Olympics, won four gold medals and exhibited such mechanical precision throughout his career that videos of his dives have been used as a training tool for the Chinese diving team. Louganis did not simply chuck himself off the diving board and hit a position; nor did he merely fall into a pool with style. Instead, his best dives represent controlled chaos – his arms floating up so that his body forms a cross, a brief flutter, and then, with Balanchine's abrupt veering between slow and quick motion, a sudden leap through the elements: the earth of the board, a sky-pricking pinnacle and one, two, three-and-a-half tumbles, all before his outstretched body penetrated the water like a javelin. 



But for all the ecstasy of Louganis off the springboard or the platform, there's also an undercurrent of death, a certain prettified gamble with mortality. At the 1983 University Games, diver Sergei Chalibashvili smashed his head on the board attempting a three-and-a-half reverse somersault in the tuck position. He fell into a coma and died a week later of heart failure, never having regained consciousness, but in the minutes subsequent to his competitor's injury, Louganis tried the same dive with success. 



Five years later, for one frightening moment, it appeared that Louganis would suffer the same fate as Chalibashvili when he clipped his head on a reverse two-and-a-half somersault in pike position during the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. He emerged from the water with his scalp seeping blood, but within an hour, he was diving again. Days later, he'd win gold performing that same Dive of Death, the three-and-a-half somersault with tuck that had killed Chalibashvili. Louganis was lauded for the bravery required to try for those moments of maverick elegance once more. What very few people knew was that even without the Dive of Death, already he was watching the clock, believing that soon he'd cease to exist. 



Since his HIV diagnosis earlier that year, Louganis had been taking the antiretroviral AZT once every four hours. Some take sleeping pills to get through the night; Louganis woke himself to take his medication. A year after the Seoul Games, he filed a restraining order against Jim Babbitt, alleging that his former boyfriend and manager had transferred over 80 percent of the diver's earnings to his own name. Babbitt died the following year.



By the time he published Breaking the Surface, Louganis had buried two ex-partners. In 1996, his memoir spent five weeks as the number one book on the New York Times best-seller list. Later, it would be adapted into a made-for-TV movie of the same name starring Mario Lopez in a memorably awful performance as the champion diver. It's hard for Lopez to do pensive with verisimilitude, his forte lying somewhere between daytime television winking and A.C. Slater-style strutting. But Louganis, in typically gracious fashion, calls the performance "wonderful." The man is sunshine.


Back on Board airs Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET/PT on HBO, and for many, it will be the first they've heard of Louganis since Breaking the Surface. The documentary reveals how his life has changed since he stopped diving – his two-decade absence from the sport (largely because he perceived that he was unwelcome in the community); his return as a mentor for USA Diving athletes; his financial crises, including the near-auction of his home; and his marriage to a paralegal named Johnny Chaillot, who recounts their meeting on Match.com thusly: "The first profile that came up was Greg Louganis – kissing a dolphin! I was like, 'I'm not contacting Greg Louganis. That's ridiculous!'"



Yet the film does not cover much of anything between 1996 and 2012. Instead, the bulk of Back on Board relies on material well-tread by Breaking the Surface – Louganis' childhood, diving record and HIV diagnosis – before casually skipping ahead to his London Olympics trip with USA Diving, the relationship with Chaillot and efforts to resolve financial troubles.

Nevertheless, Back on Board manages to convey how individuals like Louganis have, in sharing their stories, radically shifted the discourse around HIV since the Nineties. Toward the end of the film, he watches a video in which diver Ji Wallace comes out as HIV-positive, citing Louganis as an inspiration. Wallace speaks with confidence and strength. He doesn't appear afraid that he will be asked how a smart guy like him practiced unsafe sex or how he contracted the illness. He doesn't seem to worry that he'll be chastised for hoping to live a long time.

"This film has the power to save lives," Louganis says.

Just like its star.