Olympic legend Greg Louganis dives into coaching
As he grabs a quick bite to eat at a favorite restaurant before heading off for yet another long afternoon at the pool, Greg Louganis sits all but unrecognized by scores of fellow diners - and that’s just fine with the greatest Olympic diver who ever lived.
"I’ve had my day in the sun as it were," Louganis chuckles as he swirls the Thai iced tea in his glass and contemplates something that just a year ago he never imagined would happen. Louganis, winner of four gold medals and a silver in three Olympics, has returned to the sport as a coach and mentor.
And right now there’s barely time for lunch before he has to jump in his car and head four miles down the road to the Fullerton College pool. There, on a sun-swept but chilly winter afternoon the soft-spoken Louganis will start putting a handful of young athletes through their paces as head coach of a fledgling program called SoCal Divers.
He’ll have them diving, sure, but he’ll also have them doing back flips on the ground, handstands, stretching, yoga and calisthenics. It’s all part of a laid-back but rigorous conditioning program.
"I want to get your cardiovascular system to where you’re at a national competition and thousands of people are watching and your heart isn’t going boom, boom, boom," he tells 21-year-old Christine Runkle.
"I don’t know if I’ll ever get to that," says the Concordia University senior who is the defending NAIA women’s one-meter diving champion.
"Sure you will," Louganis says softly.
After all, he did.
It will be 23 years this summer since Louganis became the only man in the sport’s history to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals in both springboard and platform diving. He likely would have done it three times had the United States not boycotted the 1980 Olympics.
Then he quietly vanished from the sport upon which he had stamped his name as indelibly as Michael Jordan did on basketball.
Not that Louganis didn’t keep busy during those years. He’s been a motivational speaker, made a handful of movies, written a best-selling memoir called "Breaking the Surface," even spent two decades training show dogs.
But until last summer, Louganis said, he never thought seriously about coaching. Not until Steve Foley, who trains USA Diving’s best divers, asked him why he hadn’t remained involved with the sport.
"I was never invited," Louganis says he told him. "Nor did I feel welcome."
For years he thought that might have something to do with old jealousies.
He was, after all, the cover boy for U.S. diving in the 1980s, his handsome face and perfectly sculpted body splashed across so many magazines that, like Muhammad Ali in boxing, he made it hard to remember anyone else who competed during his era.
But others, including his former coach, told Louganis there was another, darker reason: It was because he was gay.
"And I’m like ’Nooooo!’" Louganis recalls, laughing.
He really didn’t believe it at first, he adds, or at least he tried not to. Although he didn’t come out publicly until 1994, a year before announcing he was also HIV-positive, he says his sexuality was never a secret to fellow divers.
"You want to give people the benefit of the doubt," says Louganis, who for the past several years has lived in Malibu with his partner, Daniel McSwiney. "But there’s too much evidence to the contrary that that was the case."
Foley for his part prefers not to talk about that, but to note how grateful he is that Louganis came back. Besides his SoCal Divers duties he’s a mentor to USA Diving’s coaches and top competitors, helping prepare the next crop of Olympic divers.
"He’s our Michael Jordan," Foley says. "He was expected to win all the time and he did. He’s quite special and amazing and we want to tap into that ’What made you so good?’"
Louganis, who started dancing when he was a toddler, began gymnastics soon after and started diving when he was about 8 or 9, has strong opinions about that.
Coaches across the country, he says, need to start sharing information on technique and training if America’s best divers are to reach their full potential.
"A lot of the coaches are rather insecure about their talent," he says. "They may have a really talented diver and it’s like, ’Oh, it’s mine, mine, mine. This is my ticket to the Olympics.’ And that’s not going to get us anywhere."
Kids, meanwhile, need to start learning the fundamentals of body awareness and posture as early as he did, he says. And he also wants them to have a life away from the pool, stressing community service. That’s why he hopes the fledgling SoCal Divers, with its 25 members, can eventually build its own training center.
Chris Mitchell, the CEO of Crown Acquisitions, a Southern California-based real estate firm, founded the club and hired Louganis as its coach after a chance meeting last year at a diving competition.
"We just saw a need for a different type of environment within the diving world," one that stressed outside activities as well as competition, said Mitchell, whose 10-year-old daughter is a diver. "We discovered Greg felt the exact same way."
Although well aware of his stature, Louganis is modest about his accomplishments. He maintains most of his divers, born after he won his last gold medal, aren’t impressed by what he achieved.
What clearly does impress them is that, at age 51, Louganis is still trim, muscular and appears to be in better shape than they are.
"Let’s do some handstands," he says to Runkle and 17-year-old Clay Pinckney, a two-time high school diving champion who plans to compete at Duke University next year.
Keeping up a steady patter of small talk, he outlasts them both, only coming down to retrieve keys that have fallen out of his pocket.
When he was diagnosed with HIV in 1988 Louganis wasn’t sure he’d still be alive in 2011, let alone doing handstands. That’s one reason he jumped at the long-delayed opportunity to coach.
"I’m thankful, well, for one thing, to still be here," he says. "But also to see the value of what I have to offer. ... I don’t want this knowledge and experience to be lost."