Greg Louganis and Back on Board at Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival

October 8, 2014

I broke one of my personal rules yesterday, when I interviewed Greg Louganis, posssibly the greatest Olympic diver ever, about Back on Board, Cheryl Furjanic’s documentary about his complicated life and times., without having seen the movie first. In my defense, I’ll just say that I’m way behind on my movie-watching for the festival, and the interview opportunity came up unexpectedly. (I did the same thing with Gillian Flynn recently — I intereviewed the Gone Girl novelist a couple of days before I saw the David Fincher film. But at least I only talked about the process of adopting the novel to the screen. And I ran it in my OnBooks column rather than in our MovieStyle section. I’m not a total hack, he over-protested.) But while I don’t think it’s generally a good practice, in my defense I have a particular interest in Louganis’s post diving career as a gay rights activist and I’m pretty well-versed in his story. Or at least I thought I was before I talked to him.

photo-main-1I’ll write about Louganis in my Sunday Perspective column, but I want to call attention to Saturday’s screening of Back on Board at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival. It’s at 11:45 and Louganis and Furjanic will be in attendance. So will I, unless duty calls me elsewhere. (Right now, I’m scheduled to be on a panel at 10 a.m., so I’m thinking I’ll have time to slip over and catch the screening. If not, I’ll have to scrounge up a screener.)

What you probably know about Lougainis is that he’s the only person ever to win Gold medals in both platform and springboard diving events in consecutive Olympic games. Or maybe you don’t know that, but maybe you know that he was diagnosed as HIV positive a few months before the ’88 games in Seoul. Back then, most people — including Louganis — considered that a death sentence. Yet he still went on to compete in the games, without informing South Korean officials of his status for fear they’d deny him entry into the country. Which they surely would have. They refused to allow Ryan White, a 16-year-old hemophiliac who had contracted the HIV virus through a transfusion to attend the games.

Louganis knew this because he wanted White — whom he had befriended after they’d met at an Indiapolis diving event — to attend the games as his guest.

You might also remember what happened to Louganis in the Springboard preliminaries in Seoul; on his ninth qualifying dive, he struck his head on the board, suffered a concussion and lacerated the back of his head.

Louganis — who later said he was inspired by White’s example — continued; executing his best dive of the competition some 40 minutes later and winning the gold the next day. After White died in 1990, Louganis gave Jeanne White-Ginder, Ryan’s mother, the gold medal that he won for that springboard event.

It wasn’t until 1994, that he came out as a gay, HIV-positive man in an interview with Barbara Walters.

In his 1996 autobiography, Breaking the Surface, co-written with Eric Marcus, Louganis provided more details about his history of domestic abuse and rape as well as teenage depression, and how he began smoking and drinking at a young age. The book spent five weeks at number one on the New York Times Best Seller list. In a 1995 interview with Oprah Winfrey, Louganis spoke publicly for the first time about being gay and HIV-positive. (His story was recounted in the 1996 Showtime movie Breaking the Surface: The Greg Louganis Story with Mario Lopez playing the lead and Louganis narrating.)

Anyway, I don’t want to scoop mayself here, so all I’ll say is Louganis came off as a very warm, very bright man who answered questions candidly and didn’t seem to mind I hadn’t seen the movie (or that I didn’t remember his chronology as well as I imagined I did). He seems to be in a pretty good place now. If you’ve got the time and want to know more about what he’s up to know, check out this clip from a few months ago.

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