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Breaking the Silence

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“For me, this book means no more secrets,” writes Greg Louganis in the introduction to his autobiography, Breaking the Surface. For Louganis, that’s truly remarkable, since until recently the private life of the greatest diver in Olympic history consisted almost entirely of secrets. Not until last June, when Louganis competed in the Gay Games in New York City, did he publicly acknowledge his sexual orientation. Now he has revealed, more startlingly, that he is battling AIDS. Further, he says, he was abused by his lover, who died of the disease in 1990. Louganis, 35, was found to be HIV-positive in March 1988, five months before the Olympic Games in Seoul, where he gashed his head on the diving board during the preliminaries of the three-meter springboard competition. Still, he went on to win two more Olympic gold medals.

His autobiography, written with Eric Marcus and due this week from Random House, provides a wrenching account of Louganis’s personal life. Placed in a foster home at birth by his unmarried teenage parents, Greg, whose natural father was Samoan, was adopted nine months later and grew up in El Cajon, Calif., outside San Diego. His adoptive father, Peter, an accountant and an alcoholic, was as undemonstrative as his adoptive mother was affectionate. In spite of a childhood crippled by insecurities, suicidal depressions and inner conflict over his sexuality, Louganis excelled as an athlete. But until 1994, when he went into therapy, his public triumphs were, for him, secondary to his private agonies: abusive relationships, a fear of exposure and, ultimately, his devastating illness. “I want people to know who I am and what I went through,” he writes. “Then, if parents want their kids to grow up to be like me, I won’t have to wonder, ‘What if they really knew?’ ” The following excerpt begins at the 1988 Olympics, as Louganis is about to dive in the preliminaries.

Thirty-five divers from around the world were competing for one of 12 spots, and after eight dives, I was leading. Several thousand people were packed into Seoul’s Chamshil Pool, and the atmosphere was electric. I climbed the ladder to the 3-meter board. My ninth dive was a reverse two-and-a-half pike, one of my best.

I took the first step, the second step, the third and the fourth, then reached up with my arms and pushed off, allowing the board to kick me into the air. I could feel right away that my weight was back in the direction of the board, which meant I was going to be close. So, as I brought my legs up to initiate the somersault, I exhaled and held my breath.

I was underwater before I realized that I’d hit my head. Once I did, the first emotion I felt was embarrassment. As I swam toward the side of the pool, I thought: What if I’m bleeding? Is there blood in the pool? In normal circumstances that wouldn’t have been such a big deal, but these were anything but normal circumstances. I didn’t even pause to think that I might be badly injured. I was in a total panic that I might cause someone else harm.

When one of the coaches started digging through my hair to see if I had a cut, I held up my hand to get him to back off. I didn’t want anyone to touch me except my coach, Ron O’Brien, who knew the whole story.

Months before, I’d finally gotten my courage up to go for an HIV test. My lover of six years had already been diagnosed with AIDS; it wasn’t surprising that I was HIV-positive. Since my diagnosis, I’d focused entirely on training and was in denial about HIV. Now there was no denying the terrifying truth.

Ron saw a trickle of blood coming down the back of my neck and pushed it back up under my hairline. We got to the waiting room and, as the team doctor, Jim Puffer, started trying to find the wound, my thoughts were racing. Did I get any blood in the pool? Could I have infected Ron? Then I worried about Dr. Puffer, who wasn’t wearing gloves. Was I putting him in danger?

I was too panicked in that moment to think clearly. Later I talked with Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the nation’s foremost AIDS experts, who told me that “the profound dilutional effect together with the chlorine in the pool would have killed the virus.” The only people who were at any risk were those who came in direct contact with my blood, and according to Dr. Fauci the risk was extremely small. Since 1988, both Ron and Dr. Puffer have been tested for HIV, and both are negative.

Before the ’88 Olympics, I had debated telling Dr. Puffer about my HIV status. It was irresponsible for me not to, but I didn’t want him to have the burden of keeping such a difficult secret. Ron, my coach, and Tom, my lover, were the only two people at the Olympics who knew. And now I wanted to warn Dr. Puffer, but I was paralyzed. All I could do was cry.

The Olympics, I thought, were over for me. Ron checked my standings and came back with the news that I was in fifth place. The top 12 divers make the finals. So it wasn’t over as long as I had the strength to compete. It was easier for me to focus on diving than it was to think about the possibility of having put Dr. Puffer in danger. We had about 12 minutes until I had to do the next dive. There was no time for anesthetic. Dr. Puffer sewed up my scalp and put in a waterproof patch. By then we had six or seven minutes to go. I thought about my friend Ryan White. I knew Ryan would never give up, and that gave me the extra push I needed.

When they announced my next qualifying dive, it got eerily quiet. I approached the end of the board and propelled myself into the air. I still remember how silent it was under the water. As I swam up toward the surface, I started to hear the crowd. As I neared the side of the pool and the water drained from my ears, the cheers got louder and louder, until they sounded like a roar. I had never felt that kind of approval. I wound up coming in third. All this just for a chance to compete for the gold.

I sometimes can’t believe what I had to go through to get to that point. And it wasn’t just the bump on my head, not just the HIV diagnosis, but a lifetime of fear and pain and always feeling that the next dive would make it all right.

By the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, I’d been diving for nearly 20 years. When I was 9, my parents had a swimming pool built in our backyard, and I began practicing gymnastic stunts off the diving board. Long before I became a competitive diver, gymnastics, acrobatics and dance were my real loves.

My dad showed no interest in my acrobatics, gymnastics and especially my dance. His interest in my diving was the other extreme. When I started taking lessons in 1969, it felt like he was too involved. One day when I was 11, I was supposed to learn a back one-and-a-half pike on the 1-meter springboard. It was a new dive, and I couldn’t do it. I was scared and it was a very cold day. So I just stood on the board, freezing and frozen. Dad watched the whole thing. When we got home, he said. “You’re going to do that back one-and-a-half pike.” He wanted me to do it on the board in our pool, and I said, “Dad, it’s not a regulation springboard.” He said that he didn’t care, and he took off his belt and told me not to talk back.

I can’t remember if he hit me with the belt then or waited until I had my suit on, but he hit me across my backside and legs until it burned. That I can’t forget. lie made me do four or five back one-and-a-half pikes. To punish him, I would land flat, trying to hurt myself.

The best way to deal with my father was to steer clear; he’d fly off the handle, especially when he was drinking, and he drank every night. Because of Dad, Mom got very withdrawn, and over the years they said less and less to each other. They eventually divorced when I was 24.

School was hardly a refuge from what was going on at home. Kids called me nigger, because my Samoan complexion got very dark in the sun, or retard, because of my stutter. I always had trouble reading, but it wasn’t until I got to college that I was diagnosed with dyslexia. When everyone found out that I did acrobatics, they started calling me sissy and faggot, until they realized that I was athletically gifted. Despite my abilities, there was always a part of me that felt inadequate.

At 12, unable to manage his moods and deeply depressed when a doctor told him that because of knee damage he’d incurred by practicing on cement floors, he would have to give up gymnastics—and his dreams to one day compete in the Olympics—Louganis made a halfhearted attempt to kill himself. He recovered quickly from an overdose of aspirin and Ex-Lax but would try suicide twice again before he was 18. Conversations with a counselor did not help, but diving became a way of proving that he was someone special. By 1971 he had already competed in enough regional and national meets to qualify for the Junior Olympics in Colorado Springs. Five years later, Louganis joined the U.S. team at the ’76 Olympics in Montreal, where at 16, he won the silver medal for 10-meter platform diving.

Not long after I got back from the Olympics, I got involved with a man for the first time. We met at the beach, where I would go after my high school classes. He was in his late 30s, with brown hair and a stocky build. He asked if I wanted to get a drink, a Coke or an iced tea. We got to his place, a nice two-story townhouse, and we went in and sat down in his living room. We talked for a while, and eventually we ended up in his bedroom. He put his arms around me and kissed me. I really liked being held, and I was thrilled that this guy found me attractive. But afterward I felt guilty and ashamed for having had sex with a man. On the drive home I could smell his scent on me. I worried that my mother would know. As soon as I got home, I jumped in the shower and scrubbed myself clean. Over the next six months, we got together maybe a dozen times. I thought I’d feel less ashamed about what I was doing, but it only got worse. The age difference bothered me. I felt stupid telling him what I was doing at school, and I couldn’t introduce him to any of my classmates. I hated the secrecy, but I kept going back for the affection, the holding, the cuddling—more than the sex. I was starved for affection, and he was happy to give it to me. Given a choice, I would have preferred to meet and date someone close to me in age. If there were more opportunities for gay and lesbian teens to meet each other, perhaps fewer of them would find themselves seeking refuge in the arms of adult lovers.

After two years and two miserable love affairs at the University of Miami, where he had enrolled on an athletic scholarship, Louganis transferred in 1980 to the University of California at Irvine to be closer to his coach, Ron O’Brien. That year he fell in love with an artist he calls Kevin, who was diagnosed with the AIDS virus in 1987 and died three years later. When their volatile relationship ended bitterly in 1982, Louganis became entangled in an even more damaging relationship with a man he calls Tom. (For legal reasons, Louganis has used pseudonyms for the lovers he mentions in his memoirs.)

After our first date, we started seeing each other three or four times a week. Very quickly, Tom made himself indispensable to me. I’d talk about how my yard needed cleaning, and he’d do it. I needed to paint the kitchen. Done. I assumed that he did things for me because he loved me and wanted to take care of me. And I loved Tom all the more because he showered me with so much attention.

During the first months of the relationship, Tom was so agreeable that we didn’t fight a lot. Everything changed one day in the fell of 1983, over the fact that he wasn’t the only man I’d been sexually involved with during that time. We had seen each other for about a year and hadn’t made any sort of commitment yet. He asked me about someone whose name I’d mentioned, and I told him that it was someone I’d gone out with a month or two before. He then casually asked if there had been anyone else. I said yes.

Then Tom went off on a tirade. He grabbed a knife from the kitchen, held it to my neck and forced me face down onto the bed. With the knife at my throat, he tore off my clothes. To keep control, he grabbed one of my arms and held it behind my back. Then he raped me.

All I can remember saying is, “Please, don’t.” I was crying and begging him to stop, but he told me I deserved it. When he was done, he got off me and left the room. I was numb. Once I realized he was gone, I grabbed my clothes and left. As I drove home to my house, it never occurred to me to go to the police or stop at a hospital or tell anyone what had happened. At home I got into the shower. Afterward, I closed and locked my door, brought my dog, Maile, onto my bed and held her.

The next day I called Tom and told him that I was sorry. I thought that nobody else would have me after what he had done, so I needed him to love me or I would be alone. We saw each other that day, and he didn’t say anything about the rape: no apology, nothing. It was as if it had never happened. The following Christmas, I showered Tom with gifts. I thought it was a way to keep him. Looking back, it makes me sad that I thought so little of myself that I didn’t just walk away. Like most battered spouses, I just wanted love and approval.

Instead of walking away, Louganis remained in the relationship until 1989, letting Tom move into the Malibu house he bought following the ’84 Olympics and eventually allowing Tom to handle his financial affairs.

Tom kept me busy with appearances and speaking engagements, but the big endorsements he was counting on never materialized. Whenever a rejection came in, he would tell me that the reason I wasn’t getting them was because I wasn’t masculine enough. He made me feel guilty, as if I wasn’t doing my best to earn a living for us.

Once we moved to Malibu, Tom started handling our social life entirely. He needed to control my every move, and I allowed him to do it. All I really wanted was affection, but he was never the kind of man you would describe as loving. In the beginning we would cuddle at night and sometimes, if he was watching TV, I’d have my head on his lap and he’d stroke my hair. But by the time we moved in together, I always felt like I was begging for sex.

Part of the problem was that I spent several months at a time training in Boca Raton, Fla., where Ron, my coach, had moved. Even when Tom came to visit, he would avoid making love. Often, he’d put me to bed at 11, give me a kiss, say, “Good night, my little dummy,” and leave until 4 in the morning. And I was a dummy because I believed him when he said he was going out to do business. It never occurred to me that he was out hustling or picking up men just for fun. If it had, I would have had to think about ending the relationship, and I couldn’t imagine life without Tom. He had convinced me that I couldn’t survive on my own.

You would think that because Tom and I were a gay couple, the subject of AIDS would have been something we talked about early on in the epidemic. But we didn’t. I started getting scared when some of Tom’s friends got sick and died, and in 1987 when Kevin wrote to tell me that he was HIV-positive. That summer, when Tom came down with shingles, an infection that is common in HIV cases, I convinced myself it had nothing to do with AIDS. It was too frightening. Despite all my problems with him, I still loved him. If Tom was sick, then I might be sick—we’d been having unsafe sex for years.

All around us gay men were getting sick, getting tested, getting educated, but we remained in denial. Tom got worse and worse. He was having high fevers and night sweats, and he could barely get up and down the stairs. I had returned to Florida to train, and during our phone calls he didn’t let on how sick he was, but on March 8 he called me to tell me he had to go to the hospital. He said he was scared that he had AIDS. My stomach sank. After I put the phone down, I sat in my room with my head in my hands and cried.

Oddly, I’d had blood drawn for an HIV test that very day. My doctor, John Christakis, is my cousin by marriage, so I knew I could trust him. Then Tom was diagnosed with AIDS. I asked him if he wanted me to come home for a while. He said, “No. I want you to stay focused on your diving.” He was very upset and crying and said, “Please don’t quit. My biggest fear is that you’ll leave your diving, and then I’ll feel like a burden.” He told me I had to be strong, that we had worked so hard to get to the ’88 Olympics, and that we couldn’t give up now, but he was crying too hard to go on.

Three days later, John called and said, “I’ve got your test results. How about if I come by your place after I make rounds?” There was nothing in his voice that led me to think this was good or bad news. Nevertheless, I knew. Later, when he told me I was positive, I felt strangely calm. In a way, it was a relief. But what came next was a shock: My T cells were 256. The normal range is from 600 to 1200. According to the latest Centers for Disease Control definition of AIDS, when your T cell count falls to under 200, you’re considered to have full-blown AIDS. All I could do was nod my head, because by this time I could hardly hear anything except the pounding of my heart.

With Tom well enough to leave the hospital and the Olympics only five months away, Louganis decided to push ahead with training. He did not tell his parents then and kept the news from his coach for four weeks, fearing that O’Brien would limit his workouts. “There was no way to make it through the Olympics,” he writes, “unless Ron treated me as he always did.” Louganis embarked on a punishing regimen that included AZT every four hours, a pharmacopia of drugs and. vitamins to ward off infections and, before the Olympics, gamma globulin infusions to boost his immune system. Terrified his HIV status would become known, Louganis used his savings (from endorsements and personal appearances) to pay his medical expenses rather than submit the bills to his insurance company. And again he was haunted by thoughts of suicide.

What really saved me was the approaching competition. I had a goal, and there were people counting on me to reach it. And deep down I wanted to prove that even though I was HIV-positive, I could still win. I tried to act as if there was nothing to worry about, and Ron did the same thing. We didn’t want to alarm each other.

Still, there was plenty to worry about as our departure for Seoul approached. To start with, I was scared about drug testing at the Olympics. Would the medications show up in my urinalysis? What scared me more than anything was that someone would find out about my HIV before we left and stop me from going. I was also scared that they’d decide to implement HIV testing at the last minute. And then there was customs in Seoul. How would I hide all my medications?

Before I left home, I put my AZT in medicine bottles that didn’t identify what the pills were. Unless you were a doctor, you couldn’t tell that they were prescribed for someone who was HIV-positive. When I got to customs in Seoul, the agent asked me what the pills were for. I was so scared that I could hardly breathe as I told him the pills were vitamins and antihistamines. He just nodded and continued going through my bags.

I was also afraid of being found out during the Olympics. I had a room to myself, so at least I had some privacy. Still, when my alarm went off every four hours during the night to remind me to take my AZT, I shut it off as fast as I could. The rest of the day was more of a problem. I was swallowing pills from morning till night. I was afraid all the pill-popping would raise some eyebrows, but only one of the divers asked about it. I said it was aspirin for my shoulder. Funny thing is, when he asked, the pill I was taking happened to be aspirin.

News of my accident in the preliminaries was reported around the world. Every major newspaper published a picture of my head making contact with the diving board. Because I was back on the board so quickly, people didn’t realize how badly shaken I was.

I was still feeling shaky by the time the 10-meter platform finals got underway. I still had stitches in my scalp, and my head ached. I also needed two ice treatments a day to kill the pain in a bad shoulder. Ron was really kicking butt. Usually he’s very positive and sort of gentle. This time he was very aggressive. At that point, I needed him to help push me over the hurdle of my own fear.

In the final dive, I was trailing by three points behind 14-year-old Xiong Ni from China. My final dive was a reverse three-and-a-half, considered the most difficult dive in the sport, but I had to do a near-perfect dive to beat Ni.

As I climbed the platform, the crowd was going nuts. This time I had to shut everything out. I had to go into my own world: just the pool, the board, me and Ron. Then it was time to dive. I clasped my hands in front of me and closed my eyes, as if in prayer. I was actually trying to get focused. Facing the water, I got my feet set, with my big toes barely over the edge. I counted myself off—one, two, three, go. As I left the platform, I kept looking at my spot across the pool. I circled around through the air, grabbing my knees, and then picked up my spot on the surface of the water. Another rotation, spot the water, another rotation, spot the water. I heard my hands breaking the surface and felt the water rushing against my body. From that point on I couldn’t hear anything except the hum of the water pump.

From the sound of the entry I knew it wasn’t perfect, but it was a pretty good dive. As I came to the surface, I could see Ron was fixated on the scoreboard. I didn’t want to look, so I just looked at him. Then all of a sudden he was jumping up and down. I knew we’d won. After all we’d been through, none of it was in vain. I’d become the first male diver to win a pair of gold medals at consecutive Olympics.

It was my moment, and for the first time I didn’t feel at all guilty about enjoying it. On the one hand, I had an incredible sense of pride that I’d managed to come through for the whole team of people supporting me. On the other, this was it. My diving career was over. I was HIV-positive. Tom already had AIDS. Standing on the podium, I wondered, “How soon before I get sick? How soon before I die? What would the people cheering for me think if they knew I was gay and HIV-positive? Would they still cheer?”

The banquet that night was very emotional. I thanked the appropriate people, and then I turned to Ron and said, “Nobody will ever know what we went through, nobody.” I started crying, and that was the end of my speech. I simply couldn’t say any more.