Greg Louganis knows what it’s like to be perfect. And he’s concerned that kind of pressure will be the undoing of a lot of athletes at the London Olympics.
He’s trying to make sure the stress of winning medals isn’t heaped on the shoulders of American divers, who have been chasing his standard of excellence since Louganis became the sport’s icon in the 1980s. The U.S. has been blanked in diving in two consecutive Olympics, and hasn’t won a gold since 2000.
The man who won four Olympic gold medals and resembled a Greek god while spinning off the 3-meter springboard and 10-meter platform is back in the fold at his first games with USA Diving working as an athlete mentor.
"I’m hoping it’s not too little, too late," Louganis said at last month’s U.S. diving trials near Seattle.
He came on board last year — late in the four-year Olympic cycle — after being invited by Steve Foley, an Australian who had taken over as USA Diving’s high performance director from Ron O’Brien, Louganis’ former coach.
It marked a reunion between Louganis and the sport’s U.S. governing body after years of separation, which he attributes to not being invited and not feeling welcome.
Louganis thinks it was made possible because he stopped coaching after briefly working with a diving club in Fullerton, Calif., last year. Not coaching meant he wasn’t a threat to other coaches, who feared Louganis’ reputation would lure their divers away. He thought doing both would be a conflict of interest.
"I’m not coaching dives, I’m observing and making recommendations of what I see, of what they may be able to add to enhance their training programs," he said.
More important to Louganis, and what he most enjoys, is being able to share his experiences, including successes and failures, with the current generation of U.S. divers. He will be in London during the games and afterward he’ll attend a camp for young British divers.
"I make myself available to kids to be able to talk about their home life, their school, their boyfriends, girlfriends, their potential professional life after diving, agents," he said. "I have those experiences that some of the other kids might be going through that I can share; it opens the door to say I’m a safe place because I’ve been there."
Where he’s been was about as low as a person can go. Louganis revealed much of his personal turmoil in his 1995 autobiography, "Breaking the Surface." There was emotional abuse by his father, physical and sexual abuse by a partner, depression, addiction to alcohol and painkillers, and the most shocking details of all — he was gay and HIV positive, something he chose not to disclose to the U.S. Olympic Committee before the 1988 Seoul Olympics and was later harshly criticized for.
"I’ve been to those dark places, but I came up on the other side," he said. "It gives an opportunity of realizing that there might be something else."
Most of today’s divers weren’t born when Louganis was making history as the only male diver to win consecutive Olympic gold medals in both springboard and platform diving.
"They know me from YouTube. They’re impressed with that," he said, smiling. "Not that they read a whole lot, but you can read it in the record books."
The topic most of them ask about is when Louganis hit his head on the springboard while leading the preliminaries in Seoul. Barely 30 minutes later, he returned to compete and notched the highest score ever in a qualifying round. He went on to win the gold.
"That baffled a lot of people," the 52-year-old former champion said. "It’s something that they’re very curious about."
Among the current Olympians he’s worked with are David Boudia, Nick McCrory and Troy Dumais, the only American man besides Louganis to make four Olympic diving teams.
"I love him," Louganis said of Dumais, who often quoted his mentor’s advice during the U.S. trials.
"Even Greg Louganis said put your best dive last," Dumais said in switching the order of his list.
Louganis’ Olympic success set the bar so high that no one has yet equaled it. But he says today’s divers are better than he was.
"They’re doing a higher degree of difficulty, they’re getting higher scores," he said.
Synchronized diving has been added to the Olympic program since Louganis retired, creating four more events.
"That would have been a blast," he said. "I would have loved that."
Louganis describes his mentoring work as a "crash course" in trying to tweak the mindsets of U.S. divers who might be obsessed with perfection.
"It’s not perfection that wins a medal. It’s generally who makes the fewest mistakes," he said.
And if he can move the USOC’s focus even slightly away from winning the medal count, then Louganis will feel better.
"That is not where the heads of the athlete need to be," he said. "Unless you perform, the medals aren’t going to come. The thing that I’m most concerned about is the aftercare."
He cites the suicide of freestyle skier Jeret "Speedy" Peterson last July and the death of former Olympic champion diver Mark Lenzi this year as examples of athletes who could have used help transitioning to the real world after retirement.
"It’s a little unnerving because the USOC is so focused on the Olympians, and there’s a lot of kids who don’t quite make it as an Olympian and they’re going through a lot of the same things," he said.
Louganis also works with the U.S. Olympians Association, a support network for former Olympic athletes. In his new roles, he feels relaxed and empowered because he’s doing it his way.
"If I see something that’s not quite right I’ll call it out. People are going to get (angry) at me and that’s OK," he said. "I got so much (grief) for coming out from USA Diving, but on the flip side of that, I’ve been getting notes from kids who are saying, ‘You saved my life.’"
Louganis said his pull-no-punches approach seems to be working with the powers that be.
"I think they’re receptive to it because I don’t think they’re accustomed to straight talk," he said. "It’s like, ‘Wow.’ I know it’s right in my heart, whether it’s politically correct, I really don’t care. Right is right."