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What it was like to be an HIV-positive, closeted Olympian in the '80s

Five years after retiring from diving at the ripe old age of 28, I rediscovered my grade school passion for acting. I was a lead in an off-Broadway play where I played a chorus boy named Darius. Out and proud, he walked in gay pride rallies without a care. Darius dies from AIDS in the play, but his spirit comes back and tells his friends to hate AIDS, not his life.

Like Darius, I was gay and HIV-positive. But unlike Darius, I was semi-closeted and scared — I had none of his pride and swagger. I realized I was living out my dreams through my character, a man who lived unapologetically without fear of ridicule. I’d had enough. I wanted people to know the truth behind the man who’d won four gold medals in two consecutive Olympics.

Hiding my identity was like living on a desert island, shut off from the outside world. Sure, I told my closest friends and family about my illness and sexuality, but I never wanted to be known in the diving world as the one with AIDS or the gay athlete. I faced enough bullying when I came out to my US diving teammates. It was a small team, and most of the guys didn’t want to room with me during travel. They started a "Beat the Fag" club, which was all about teasing me.

Secrets isolate us. They prevent us from growing. I wanted to tell others because I knew I wasn’t the only one going through these internal struggles. Maybe I could be a sign of hope to someone.

I told the world that I was gay and HIV-positive in 1995, agreeing to primetime interviews with the media titans of that decade. I went into my press tour wanting to debunk myths about gay people with HIV. Instead, my goals were deflected by commentators who focused on a bad dive at the 1988 Olympics, when I hit the 3-meter springboard, cutting my head open; the wound was treated by a physician, and we didn’t have latex gloves on site in those days. My decision to hide my diagnosis after my injury was called "indefensible" and "morally inept."

I never thought people would accept me for who I am

I tested positive for HIV six months before the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, South Korea. Back then, being diagnosed with HIV was a death sentence. Still, my doctor told me to continue preparing for the Olympics — I felt fine physically, and he said training would be good for me.

I knew this would be my final competition, my last shot at Olympic glory.

I went into Seoul in peak form as the odds-on favorite. That all changed when I hit my head on the board during the prelims. In a split second, I became the underdog.

HIV doesn’t take over my life. It’s just a small part of who I am.

Any ounce of confidence I had in my ability was lost. Would I be strong enough? Would I be able to recover from the failure? I was also terrified that my injury could hurt other people — could the blood from my wound infect the physician? Even though I knew the chances of the virus spreading in a chlorinated pool are slim to none, the worst outcomes came to mind. Still, I kept my diagnosis a secret — I didn’t think I had a choice.

Ron O’Brien, my longtime coach, reminded me to take it one dive at a time, one moment at a time.

And he was right — I went on to win two gold medals in Seoul, becoming the only male diver to sweep the Olympics with back-to-back victories.

"No one will ever understand what we have just been through," I said to my coach.

Knowing that I’ve helped others keeps me going on bad days

I returned to aquatics a few years ago to mentor Olympians during the London games, talking to star athletes who were drawing near the end of their time in the spotlight. By the time an athlete hints at retirement, the sports world is already in search of a newcomer.

Aftercare is crucial — the majority of Olympic athletes are not set for life with endorsement deals and speaking engagements. My life is a testament to that fact.

Despite my fame, I didn’t get put on the coveted Wheaties box after my Olympic victories. Back then, I didn’t fit the desired "wholesome" image — rumors swirled that I was gay. Years after my book was released, I still deal with financial woes. My house almost went into foreclosure during the recession. I’ve gone through bouts of depression.

Knowing that my story has affected others, even in a minuscule way, keeps me passionate. When I’m having a bad day, I think of a message from a young fan who said she watched a documentary about me last year. She said I helped give her the courage to come out to friends and family about her own HIV status after seven years of keeping her diagnosis private.

Fellow Olympian Ji Wallace, who is gay and HIV-positive, mentioned he went public with his diagnosis after watching one of my interviews with Piers Morgan during the London Olympics. I simply said that HIV doesn’t take over my entire life. It’s just a small part of who I am. I was blown away that my life could give strength to others after all these years.

LGBTQ acceptance in sports has come a long way

The diving world is more accepting of LGBTQ athletes than it was in my day, as is all of the sports world.

I was surprised when the NBA and NASCAR voiced their opposition to Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act last year, an anti-LGBTQ bill that would have allowed businesses to refuse employment, housing, and other services based on gender identity and sexual orientation. These are instances of true sportsmanship.

My life has been a long journey to self-acceptance. I’m truly happy. I’ll have these pinch-me moments. Once I was at an advocacy event with my husband, sandwiched in between Elton John and President Bill Clinton.

Or I’ll see my body plastered on the latest Wheaties box — I finally landed the spot this year. The honor means much more to me today than it would have in the past. I am accepted not just as an athlete but as a whole person, with my identity fully embraced.

Four-time Olympic champion Greg Louganis is widely considered the greatest diver in history. The only male to sweep both the 3m and 10m diving events in consecutive Olympic Games (1984 and 1988), he earned a total of five Olympic medals, five World Championship titles, and 47 national titles.

He is a mentor for the US Olympic diving team, a judge for the Red Bull Cliff Diving Tour, a dog agility expert, and a motivational speaker.  He is the subject of the 2014 HBO documentary Back on Board and the author of Breaking the Surface.

Correction: An earlier version of this essay included a reference to a false news account about the sports world's response to LGBT discrimination. We regret the error.

As told to: Elisha Brown
Photographer: Anna Harris


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