Four-time Olympic gold medalist diver Greg Louganis was diagnosed with HIV at age 28, just six months before competing in the 1988 Olympics.
“At the time I was diagnosed, we thought of HIV as a death sentence,” Louganis tells ESPN The Magazine for its upcoming annual Body Issue, in which the retired athlete poses nude. “I was like, ‘Well, I’m going to pack my bags and go home and lock myself in my house and wait to die.’ ”
Louganis kept the diagnosis a secret – “Had they known about my HIV status at the ’88 Olympics in Seoul, I would have never been allowed into the country,” he says – suffering in silence but staying positive by continuing to train for the games.
“The diving was much more of a positive thing to focus on. I did suffer from depression – if we had a day off I couldn’t get out of bed,” he recalls. “I would just pull the covers over my head. But as long as I had something on the calendar, I showed up … I’ve long suffered from chronic depression, so even when I was younger I didn’t think I’d see 30.”
Now, nearly three decades later, Louganis – who at 56 is the oldest athlete to be featured in this year’s Body Issue – says he feels fitter than most of his peers. The former diver is preparing to head to Rio as an official athlete mentor for the USA Diving Team. But first he sat down with ESPN‘s Morty Ain to talk about living with HIV, staying in shape at 56 – and that infamous head injury in Seoul.
Louganis made fans around the world wince when he smashed his head into the diving board while attempting a reverse two and a half somersault during the 1988 Olympics. “I heard this big hollow thud and I go crashing into the water and I was thinking, ‘What was that?’ ” Louganis says. “Then I realized, ‘Oh my God, that was my head.’ ”
“My first feeling was embarrassment. I was embarrassed. I was thinking, ‘How do I get out of this pool without anyone seeing me?’ It’s the Olympic Games and I’m supposed to be a pretty good diver and good divers don’t do that,” he says with a laugh.
Just 35 minutes later, Louganis climbed back up the ladder to perform a dive that would qualify him for the finals. Less than 24 hours later, he won the gold medal in the event, cementing himself as one of the greatest Olympians in history.
Louganis’ diving career might have been at its peak, but privately he was struggling.
“I felt so isolated because of the secrets at that time,” recalls Louganis, who is gay. “I was out to friends and family, and everybody in the diving world knew about my sexual identity, but very few people knew about my HIV status. I felt like I was living on an island.”
Louganis says he also experienced some discrimination from his teammates, who, he later found out, secretly held meetings about who would room with him when they traveled internationally.
“I ended up rooming with maybe a coach, or maybe they would get me my own room,” he says. “There was usually one person on the team that was secure enough in their sexuality that it didn’t matter, but no one really wanted to room with ‘the f-g.’ ”
“Things are different now,” adds Louganis, who publicly came out during the Gay Games of 1994. “I think we’ve come to a place of acknowledging bullying and recognizing the importance of standing up for your fellow teammate. I think there is less of that. There is much more sensitivity and people are much more open. Just look at how many athletes have come out now.”
Louganis says that living with HIV has helped motivate him “mentally and physically.”
“I look at working out and doing something physically active every day as being as important as taking my meds,” he says.
“When I look around at my contemporaries, I’d say I’m probably in better shape than most of them,” Louganis adds. “It’s all about making healthy choices.”
“HIV taught me that I’m a lot stronger than I ever believed I was,” he adds. “Also, not to take anything for granted. I didn’t think I would see 30, and here I am at 56.”
ESPN The Magazine‘s eighth annual Body Issue will be available online July 6 and on newsstands July 8.