A beaming and gracious Greg Louganis absorbed two standing ovations at the City Club of Cleveland, a gay pride flag at his left shoulder. City Club Executive Director Dan Moulthrop believes this was the first time the pride flag has stood on the dais of the free speech forum in its 102-year history.
A few hours before Louganis helped kick off Gay Games 9, the Olympic gold medal diver answered questions from a sold-out audience and Ronald B. Richard, the president of the Cleveland Foundation, the first presenting sponsor in the games’ 32 year history.
Louganis, 54, forfeited millions of dollars in sponsorship in 1994 by coming out as an HIV-positive gay man at Gay Games 4 in New York. Only Speedo stood by the athlete who won multiple gold medals in the Los Angeles summers games in 1984 and again in Seoul, South Korea in 1988.
“I hate to say role model and I hate to say hero,” said Louganis, “because I always want to get better and I always want to be better.” Asked by Richard who he admires in sports, Louganis named Australian diver Mathew Mitcham who came out while competing in the 2008 Beijing Olympics and denied the Chinese a sweep of the diving gold medals.
Recalling the infamous moment when he struck his head on the diving board as he executed a two-and-one-half pike, Louganis said, “I had no idea what I did wrong.” His perseverance, he said, came from his friend Ryan White, the Indiana teenager who contracted AIDS through his hemophilia treatment and became an early face of the disease. In 1988, Louganis had just learned his own HIV status, which would have nixed his Olympic competition had the South Korean government known it. Instead, Louganis sealed his place in sports history by ignoring his concussion and winning both the spring board and tower diving events.
“I’m a lover not a fighter,” Louganis said. “But Ryan was my inspiration to fight through everything.” The diver grew into his advocacy gradually, saying he deliberately began his book tour for his 1995 memoir, “Breaking the Surface,” in Lawrence, Kansas: “It is important to get outside your community. If you are uncomfortable, you are probably in the right place.”
Louganis looked supremely comfortable chatting with Richard and taking questions from the crowd. He declared his fitness regimen as important to his health as his medications – with an emphasis on yoga, spin classes, biking, resistance training and wind sprints.
Asked about his ethnicity, Louganis said his wide nose and darker skin made him self-conscious about being partly Samoan. As a child, he said he was called the N-word, and mocked for his undiagnosed dyslexia with the usual array of cruel taunts. Louganis, adopted at nine months by a Greek-American father and a mother of Scot-Irish heritage, grew up in San Diego. Now, he enjoys the embrace of both the Greek and Pacific Island communities. A stranger in Honolulu once came forward to say he was Louganis’ birth father, but the athlete said he did not pursue it.
“Don’t underestimate—never underestimate—the positive impact you can have on people just by being yourself,” Louganis told the audience. “I think that’s the most important thing.”
Richard praised Louganis’ courage in successfully blocking the 1996 Olympic volleyball preliminaries in Cobb County, Georgia, after the county passed an anti-gay resolution. “Such courage combines with the warm, humble, down-to-earth manner of one who isn’t afraid to admit he was nervous about speaking out,” Richard said.
Kevin Schmotzer, a lifelong Clevelander and Gay Games 9 board director, helped arrange for Louganis’ participation in Cleveland. He stood up at the City Club to ask if the athlete would help with a documentary on how the lives of gay Northeast Ohioans have transformed. “I’ll narrate it,” Louganis answered, to warm applause.
Working on his own new documentary, “Back on Board,” has helped Louganis celebrate one happy ending. “It ends with our marriage,” he announced, beaming at husband Johnny Chaillot, whom he married last October after the law in Californian shifted to marriage equality.
“I tell the story better than that,” Chaillot ad-libbed to much laughter.
Louganis declared the most important work in AIDS remains in practicing prevention. “My husband and I are sero-different: he’s negative and I’m positive, and I intend to keep it that way.”