Featured in our 5th Annual Faces of Sports Issue!

The Compete Faces of Sports issue is always one of my favorites because it’s inspiring to see such a diverse group of people who have made a positive impact on the world of sports. One the reasons I’m passionate about the Olympics is the athletes’ stories highlighting all their diversities. It’s those stories that have built the impressive history of the Olympic movement.

As an athlete, I’ve taken lots of inspiration from many athletes based on their stories and experiences. I wish I could share all those moments with you but alas, I can only tell you about one of my biggest inspirations, Greg Louganis.

Considered the greatest diver of all time, Greg Louganis certainly has a lot to be proud of. Being the only diver in Olympic history to win two Gold medals at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games and then following that performance as the only diver to win another two Gold medals at the following Seoul Games in 1988.

But he is most often remembered as the diver who hit his head on the board during the Games in Seoul. During the preliminaries Louganis made a distance error as he was coming out of his dive and smashed his head on the board. Leaving the crowd stunned, he swam to the edge holding his head as he bled into the pool and keeping a distance as people rushed to help. Nursing a minor concussion, Louganis was strong enough in his other dives that he squeaked (barely) into the finals.

Several days later during same event final, Louganis, wearing a bandage on his head he took the board and completed all of his dives, scoring very well throughout the competition. When it came time to do the dive that had injured him in the prelim, everybody held their breath as he began his approach. Giving himself a little more distance this time, he completed the dive with a high score to the roar of applause from the stands. Louganis went on to win the Gold medal.

What most people didn’t know at the time was that he was HIV-positive. During an era overwhelmed by fear and ignorance about HIV and AIDS, there was also a lack of treatment options that made it a death sentence for most. Louganis was one of the first patients to use the experimental drug ATZ. Additionally, he was struggling with an eating disorder and an abusive relationship with his manager who had secretly moonlighted as an escort.

Taking part in unsafe sex and hiding his HIV status ultimately led to Louganis becoming infected. Learning about his condition only months before the 1988 Games, he had seriously considered dropping out. However, at the insistence of his coach and close associates, he chose to continue with his training, a decision he now credits helping him overcome the physical and emotional impact of the disease.

There is obviously a lot to unpack here but you can get a glimpse as to why Greg Louganis is someone I look up to and for whom I have immense respect. His book, “Breaking the Surface” is what inspired me to take up reading. I’ve had the pleasure of corresponding with Greg on multiple occasions and even got to meet him at a screening of his documentary, “Back on Board: The Greg Louganis Story,” a follow up to his book. It’s all helped me gain new perspective, not on just his journey but on those of Olympic athletes overall. His story is one of courage and confidence – not just in the athletic sense but also in how someone facing so much uncertainty in his life could come back from hitting his head on the board and win an Olympic Gold medal.

By Dirk Smith