Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
When I walked into SCI 101, I expected that I was going to see another biased documentary of yet another world star. Instead, Back on Board: Greg Louganis (Cheryl Furjanic, 2014) surprised me as it truthfully depicted Olympic diver Greg Louganis’s successful diving career and his later journey to overcome financial struggles.
Like most people from my generation, I had absolutely no idea who Louganis was before I saw this documentary. Yet, at least within the diving scene, Louganis was a legend for having set diving world records and winning gold in both spring and platform diving in back to back Olympic Games.
From the beginning, the documentary immediately juxtaposed scenes of Louganis winning gold at the Olympics with his middle-aged life as he struggled to keep his home. The fame and fortune we would usually associate with an Olympic gold medalist did not hold true for Louganis after his retirement from diving.
Louganis grew up as the underdog. Adopted as a child, Louganis felt he did not belong in his home and could not understand why his birth parents gave him up. With further isolation resulting from bullying due to his darker skin, Louganis had a desire to find his home, his niche in the world where he could finally feel like he belonged. With a visible potential in diving, his place turned out to be just that as he believed that people would accept him if he became the best.
Louganis, however, became more isolated from society while training for the Olympics because he traded his relationships with friends and family for progress in diving. By dedicating his life’s time and effort into diving, Louganis became the one you had to watch out for during the Montreal Olympics in 1976.
So much expectation was put on Louganis in Montreal. After a slight mistake in one of his dives, the crowd let out a huge sigh of disappointment. Finishing with only the silver medal, Louganis considered himself a failure.
As the 1980 Moscow Olympics approached, Louganis was overcome by a sense of determination to go a step further and win the gold medal. However, due to Cold War tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the U.S. boycotted the Olympic Games and Louganis missed his chance at redemption.
But there was more exigency near the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Louganis felt his gold medal was long overdue. Anxiety filled the air as Louganis began his platform dive since the world was once again expecting him to come out a champion. After he completed his platform dive, the crowd roared as Louganis took gold. Yet, even that gold medal was not enough for Louganis as he went on to win gold in the spring diving event.
With the end of his career impending, Louganis wanted to leave diving on a high note so he set out to win gold once more in spring and platform diving in the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games. This feat would forever solidify Louganis’s status as a legend in the diving community since he would be the only person in history to do so. As Louganis attempted his spring dive, he hit his head, causing the crowd to question whether he would accomplish his feat. Louganis surprised the whole world when he continued diving with his head injury and continued to win gold medals in both diving events.
While a total of four gold medals would signify an era of success for most people, that was not the case for Louganis. Instead, his successes were largely disrupted in the face of homophobia. America systemically oppressed Greg for being gay, which affected his career in advertising. A hallmark of all Olympic gold medalists was having their faces imprinted on a Wheaties cereal box. Louganis did not receive this honor along with other advertising jobs because corporations believed he did not fit the “wholesome” demographic. Corporations looked for cute and heterosexual figures to appeal to households. Because Louganis did not fit the standards to appear on ads, his future financial success was hindered.
Fast forward further into Louganis’s life after his retirement from diving and we are presented with an even darker picture marked by financial troubles. He could not pay his loans and he lost the equity on his home. Disoriented, Louganis did not know what to do at that moment. Upon reaching the realization that he could not be an Olympic gold medalist forever, he faced an existential crisis — what was he good for?
As all underdogs do, Louganis rose to the occasion. Getting back into his roots, Louganis joined USA Diving and figured out his skill was mentoring. He became a valuable asset to the prospective divers because he shared his life experiences and struggles to ease their anxiety. After negotiations with his bank, Louganis won his battle to keep his home. Most importantly, Greg became an outspoken LGBTQ figure and became an inspiration for other LGBTQ Olympic athletes.
By the end of the documentary, Louganis was no longer lost in the world searching for his home. His journey through loss and success led to his epiphany that home is where you make it. It did not matter that he was adopted or that he did not really have childhood friends. Louganis learned to take control over his life and evolve into his greater person.
Featured Image Courtesy of Swarthmore College