Amsterdam, 27 november 2016
In 1976, at only 16, Greg Louganis won a silver medal in diving at the Olympic Games in Montreal. The Americans boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games, which kept him from two medals, but he continued his career, and in Los Angeles in 1984 he won two golds, a feat he repeated in 1988 at the Seoul Games.
Only a handful of people knew that when he won his last two gold medals he had recently learned he had HIV.
To be clear, in 1988 an HIV diagnosis was tantamount to a death sentence: there wasn’t yet effective medication against the virus. In 1988 an HIV diagnosis inevitably led you sooner or later to AIDS, and AIDS to death.
The foregoing proves two things. First, Greg Louganis was an athlete of the highest category: being the best in the world for 12 years in a very competitive sport like diving makes you one of the greatest athletes in modern sports history. You could well view Louganis as the Messi of diving.
But that Louganis won two gold medals only a few months after getting a death sentence—the most profound message that a person can hear—shows diving’s enormous importance for him. Diving from the 3-meter board, diving from the 10-meter tower, seems to have given him something he could find nowhere else, and which he needed deeply.
Last Sunday I met Greg during a brief meet-and-greet in Amsterdam. A couple of hours later, along with him and a few hundred other invitees, I watched a documentary made of his life.
I spoke with him for no longer than ten minutes. Most of that time I spent on friendly words, showing my admiration and my respect for his achievements, words that he must have heard week after week in every language on the endless promotional tour that dragged him over four continents.
Until I said goodbye to him for the last time. “Take care,” I just blurted out. “This is your life. Nobody else’s.”
Inappropriate, far too much to lay on someone you’ve known for only a day…
But when I saw him coming down the stairs at the movie theater, I suddenly realized how that day I had met a man who had lived his life in a prison and had to fight unendingly to escape it. Diving from the board, from the tower, I understood, was his Houdini act. Every dive was a leap to a few seconds of freedom.
Only a day after we met, when Greg was already busy with his fans in New York, did I understand why I was so impressed by him and his endless drive to keep diving: his power never to accept his imprisonment, his need to defeat the circumstances by living, by searching farther, by digging deeper… Never accept that life sucks, but stay alive until you feel free, until you’re happy, until you’re mounting to the top of the podium.
Greg Louganis is an inspiration. It was good to meet him.