Greg Louganis Breaks the Surface:

Former Olympian Tells His Story

by Kevin Greiner, MBA1

In an emotional speech on Thursday evening at the Power Center, former Olympic diver Greg Louganis described his process of coming out of the closet and publicly speaking about his life as a gay man. He also urged his audience to be tested for the HIV virus, because "there's a lot of living to be done with proper treatment."

Louganis, who has AIDS, linked unsafe sex with low self-esteem. He described coming out as a process of "letting go of secrets" and a step towards building self-confidence for gays and lesbians. "You need to love yourself enough to protect yourself and those you're with," he told the audience.

Louganis has been on the road since February 1995, promoting his book Breaking the Surface, lecturing at colleges and universities, and performing a one-man show in New York. Throughout his tour, Louganis has been talking publicly about his personal life for the first time. The former Olympian appeared fit and in good spirits, although a little weary, as he nears the end of his long tour.

Behind all the medals and public adulation, Louganis described his life as being dominated by two secrets: being gay and HIV positive. Although he had been out to his friends and parents since his college days as a drama student, Louganis resisted publicly acknowledging his sexuality when he became a major national figure. His secret was never completely safe. Louganis described harassment at diving tournaments, where team members would hang "fag-busters" signs around dormitories and locker rooms. "Being gay and being in sports isn't supposed to mix," quipped Louganis. "I think I proved that wrong!"

In 1988, several months before the Olympic games in Seoul, Louganis overcame his fears and had himself tested for the HIV virus. When the tests came back positive, his initial reaction was to quit diving and abandon his Olympic run. However, his doctor (who also happened to be his cousin) convinced him to continue training and put him on AZT. Louganis went on to win two gold medals, despite his infamous dive during trials, when he hit his head on the board. Louganis described the embarrassment and fear that he felt after the aborted dive. "I knew I had a responsibility to tell the doctor about my HIV status as he sewed my head up," said Louganis.

Louganis began to realize that he could no longer live a closeted life when he returned from the Seoul Olympics in 1988. He came home to an abusive relationship, and his partner threatened to blackmail him if he tried to leave. "I boxed myself into the relationship with my feelings about my HIV status. I thought, `who will touch me?' But I knew that to survive, I had to get out. It was a big step for me to build the self-esteem I needed to have the confidence to leave."

After bouts with illness and drug dependency, Louganis told himself that "the truth shall set you free" and vowed to stop living a closeted life. In 1993, he took a part in Jeffrey, an off-Broadway hit about gay life in the 1990s. Louganis played the role of Darius, a flamboyant gay dancer who later dies of AIDS. "Playing the role of Darius allowed me to face some fears and to live out some fantasies," said Louganis. "Darius was out there. His favorite saying was `We're here, we're queer, and we're on TV!'"

He publicly acknowledged his sexuality at the 1994 Gay Games in New York ("a pretty supportive crowd") and then prepared himself for a wider audience. To prepare for his coming out, Louganis did "one year of intense therapy" in advance of his book release. He did an interview with Barbara Walters that aired on 20/20 earlier this year.

Louganis described his tour as "incredibly uplifting" and has been amazed by the support he has received. During a question and answer session, it was clear that many in the Power Center audience viewed Louganis to be a major inspiration in their lives. Louganis seemed honored but not altogether comfortable with accepting the praise heaped upon him. "I have a problem with the idea of a role model. We're all human and we all make mistakes."

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