Greg Louganis, four-time Olympic gold medalist, is thought to be one of the greatest divers in history.
Louganis is known not just for his incredible athletic talents but also his role as an LGBT activist who proved that HIV/AIDS is not a death sentence.
Born of teenage parents of Swedish and Samoan descent in 1960, Louganis was adopted as an infant by a loving Greek-American family and given the name Gregory Efthimios Louganis.
The diver showed athletic promise from a very young age. He began taking dance and gymnastic lessons at just 18 months old. Louganis wanted to try out the sports after watching his older sister’s lessons.
By the age of three, the young athlete already began competing and practicing daily. He continued with dance and gymnastics until he was nine years old at which time his family got a pool, and Louganis began diving lessons.
The diver’s doctors encouraged Louganis’ participation in the sports after he was diagnosed with asthma and various allergies, as activity could help improve his breathing.
He also had a serious speech impediment as a child, which caused him to focus on his physical and athletic capabilities.
Greg Louganis at the Olympics
Louganis made his Olympic debut at just 16 years of age at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, where he received a silver medal.
He was ready to win gold, and was highly favored to do so at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow but did not attend the Games due to the US’ boycott in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Louganis continued his athletic pursuits through college during which he continued diving while receiving his undergraduate degree. He first attended the University of Miami, but later transferred to the University of California, Irvine, where he studied theater and dance.
While a student, Louganis competed at the 1982 World Championships and became the first diver in an international competition to receive a perfect 10 from all judges.
The diver graduated from college in 1983 just one year before competing in the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, where he received two gold medals.
The accident at Seoul in 1988
Despite his many achievements, Louganis may be most well-known for one of his rare accidents.
At the 1988 Seoul Olympics, the diver hit his head on the springboard during preliminary rounds. Louganis suffered a concussion from the blow but continued to compete in the preliminaries after having his head wound stitched up on the sidelines.
He went on to earn the highest score of the round with his next dive. In the finals, he won gold in both events in which he competed.
Yet, the pain and concussion Louganis suffered were the least of his worries. The young athlete was dealing with his own personal crisis, as he had been diagnosed with HIV just six months earlier and began taking antiretroviral medication.
Louganis believed at that time that his diagnosis was a death sentence.
The diver and his coach, who knew about the diagnosis, agreed that the risk of transmission to other competitors was extremely low due to the nature of the sport as a no-contact competition.
They believed that, due to stigma, Louganis would not be permitted to compete in the Olympics if his status were revealed.
After the freak accident, Louganis, in speaking to Barbara Walters in 1995, stated that he was “paralyzed with fear” that someone else could have become infected with the virus. He didn’t want anyone to touch his wound.
The HIV/AIDS epidemic
At the time, stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS was immense in the United States and globally. The virus, which has taken the lives of over 35 million people, was faced with fear and paranoia.
While at the time of Louganis’ injury, the ways the virus could be transmitted were well documented, misinformation and misconceptions about HIV/AIDS were common amongst the public.
At the time of his diagnosis, Louganis kept his HIV status a secret. While many speculated about his sexuality, the Olympic champion also kept that hidden.
In fact, many believed that the diver’s notable lack of high-paying endorsements, despite his celebrity, was due to his sexuality.
He later revealed that he contracted the virus while in a relationship with his previous manager, who was abusive to Louganis and allegedly took 80% of his earnings. His manager died of AIDS in 1990.
People with the virus faced widespread discrimination in the US. Frightened parents attempted to keep children with HIV out of schools, and gay men were shunned from many aspects of society, as HIV was labeled a “gay virus.”
In 1993, a 33-year-old Louganis, who believed he was dying of AIDS, arranged a “final birthday” party for his closest family and friends. Yet, his health improved, and the diver finally spoke openly about his HIV status a year after announcing that he was gay in 1994.
At the time, many people believed that his participation in the 1988 Olympics was irresponsible due to his injury.
Yet, no other divers, and not even the doctor who stitched Louganis’ bleeding head wound without gloves, contracted HIV.
In fact, a number of specialists came out and announced that there was no threat to the other divers at the time due to the chlorine content in the pool water, which killed the virus.
Additionally, skin is a very effective barrier against HIV. Unless one has an open wound, there would be no way to contract the virus from simply coming in contact with the blood of an individual person infected with HIV.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, then the foremost expert on HIV at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, explained that “if the virus just touches the skin, it is unheard of for it to cause infection: the skin has no receptors to bind HIV.”
Louganis’ statement forced the public to reckon with the AIDS epidemic. A beloved Olympic athlete in the prime of his life announced that he had a virus that many believed marked the end of life and brought the topic into the forefront.
“Some people don’t think that AIDS has touched their lives. A lot of people saw me at the Olympics and were cheering for me. So all of those people can’t say that they have not been affected by AIDS,” Louganis stated in speaking to Barbara Walters in 1995.
Greg Louganis as a coach, dog trainer, and activist
After coming out, Louganis became an outspoken activist for the LGBT community, as well as those living with HIV/AIDS.
He also became a living example of the fact that, due to medical advances, people which HIV could live completely normal lives.
In fact, those who have suppressed their viral load to undetectable levels by taking daily antiretroviral medications cannot transmit the virus to anyone.
In addition to his work as an activist, Louganis has coached young divers and even served as the mentor for the US diving team at the London Olympics in 2012.
The diver also competes in dog agility competitions with his beloved pets, which include a pair of champion Jack Russell terriers, a border collie, and a Hungarian Puli.
Louganis married his long-time partner Johnny Chaillot, a paralegal, in 2013. The couple separated in June of 2021.