Greg Louganis, simply put, is the greatest diver of all time, and over 30 years later, his records remain unbroken. Even so, many people remember Louganis for hitting his head during a dive at the ’88 Olympics, for being HIV-positive, for being an out gay man in the ’80s, and for all the controversy surrounding these topics.
Join us as Louganis shares his struggles since retiring from diving, including bouts with mental illness, suicide attempts, and substance use issues. He also discusses how he is doing now and whether pop culture portrayals of him in shows like “Family Guy” ruffle his feathers.
Considered the greatest diver in history, Greg Louganis is the only male to win gold medals on both 3-meter springboard and 10-meter platform in consecutive Olympic Games (1984, 1988).
A trained actor, dancer, model, and spokesman, Greg’s wide repertoire of skills keeps him in demand and in the public eye.
As the undisputed GOAT of mindset, Greg shares his knowledge and wisdom through his meditation and mindfulness course, as well as through his books, interviews, and speaking engagements.
Across the globe, billions who watched either the 1984 or 1988 Olympics were enthralled by the poetry that was Greg Louganis: The beauty and power of his diving captured the world.
With a total of 5 Olympic medals, 5 World Championship titles, and 47 national titles, more than any person in U.S. history, his records remain unbroken.
Today, as a coach, speaker, author, actor, activist, and humanitarian, he continues his tradition of excellence.
Causes close to his heart include HIV/AIDS, LGBTQ+, Adoption/Foster Care, Mental Health/Addiction, Human Rights, Animals, Environmental Issues and Climate Change. More information is available at GregLouganis.com.
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without.
To book Gabe for your next event or learn more about him, please visit gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Hey, everyone, I’m your host Gabe Howard. And calling into the show today, we have Greg Louganis. Greg is simply the greatest diver in history with a total of five Olympic medals, five world championship titles and 47 national titles. His records remain unbroken to this day. Greg, welcome to the show.
Greg Louganis: Thank you. Nice to be here.
Gabe Howard: Well, I am I am super excited to talk. I’m a little bit of a fanboy. You know, back in 1988, you know, I was 12. I and I was an awkward 12. I, I feel the need to say that and the Olympics were kind of a big deal in my house. And you won everything. You were just you were just everywhere. And it was it was very, very cool to watch.
Greg Louganis: Well, thank you.
Gabe Howard: And in leading up for this show, I, I did a little non-scientific experiment. And, and I want to be very, very clear, nonscientific. I asked approximately ten different people, do you know who Greg Louganis is? And the good news is all of them did. All of them said yes. The.
Greg Louganis: Oh, really?
Gabe Howard: Yeah.
Greg Louganis: I’m shocked.
Gabe Howard: Every single person. Yeah, all of them knew who you were, but they all gave some variant of he’s that swimmer/diver/Olympian with AIDS. Right?
Greg Louganis: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: And I just have to ask, what is the mental health toll of having people remember you for an illness you have versus your incredible accomplishments
Greg Louganis: Well, what people remember is me hitting my head on the springboard in the 88 Olympic Games and then the controversy surrounding that and all that stuff years later about my HIV status and people. I have all kinds of labels that people give me from goat greatest of all time or the diver with AIDS or you know, oh yeah, that gay diver. Or they give me all kinds of labels and I know myself well enough that I don’t I don’t buy into the labels. I mean, I feel that everybody is more than whatever labels anybody’s going to give them. So I don’t hang on to that.
Gabe Howard: Did you always feel that way? Did it ever affect you and you’ve just sort of matured or grown out of that due to experience or from day one where you’re just like, I don’t care what you think, I know who I am.
Greg Louganis: Well, you know, it started when I was really young, I mean, because I was bullied as a kid. I was a little small. I had darker skin. I was probably a bit effeminate. I don’t know because people call me fag and all that stuff. And when I went to my mom, she said, Oh, they’re just jealous. Like, Oh, okay. Because I could do things that they couldn’t do, acrobatics and dance. And I mean, I was performing on stage since I was three. I think it started there started that conditioning of mindset of thinking about Who am I? I didn’t buy into the labels. And sure, you know, more confidence as you get older, you know, you come to realize that everybody is more than any label that anybody tries to give somebody. So I don’t judge other people that way. I know that most people are trying to put definitions and put people in boxes and all that stuff that’s more reflective of who they are than that individual person.
Gabe Howard: I think it’s a great feeling and it is an evolved feeling. And I know that you’ve had issues with addiction and mental health struggles in the past. Were these caused by the controversy or unrelated?
Greg Louganis: Right. I mean, there’s all types of coping mechanisms that we use with whatever pain we might be dealing with. A big part of mine, I didn’t realize I was pretty much self-medicating over various things that were going on in my life, the loss of my dad, the loss of my mom, just various times of my life trying to cope. Because when I lost my dad, I inherited his morphine. And because he had died of cancer and a lot of the pain medications, it’s like, oh, well, I didn’t realize I was in emotional pain. So I was taking those drugs to deaden the pain that I was in. Pain is pain, whether it’s emotional or physical pain. Pain is very real. And so we all deal with it and have coping mechanisms to deal with it and learn about that. And also learning about addiction, why things happen, why, why those things happen, and what are we trying to avoid?
Gabe Howard: I want to be upfront and say I just assumed, as I imagine many of my listeners do and many of America does, that all of your mental health issues were surrounding hitting your head on the diving board, the public controversy being diagnosed with HIV AIDS. And then you just mentioned that your parents passed away and I’m like, well, yeah, that would do it. That would cause trauma.
Greg Louganis: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: Do people forget that you’re a real person that has had other things happen to them?
Greg Louganis: Well, you know what people like to say. What was the turning point? What was that moment? And generally, there’s no single moment. Everybody’s human. Everybody oftentimes neglects some of the things that we don’t want to take a look at, that we don’t want to examine. So we stuff it down. And so over time, that builds up, builds up, builds up, and then it explodes. It’s got to have an outlet somehow. Oftentimes, especially if you’re an introvert, then we’re usually taking it out on ourselves, usually doing the damage to ourselves and examining the damage that we might be doing to ourselves and getting to a healthy, healthy side. And I’m a compulsive person, so. Sure. Four Olympic gold medals and all these titles and everything. Yeah, that’s that’s a bit compulsive. That’s not, that’s not real normal. But embracing that, feeling those things with making healthier choices. And that’s the thing that I’ve learned where the coping skills is, okay, what I know what I want to do, but it may not be good, but maybe if it’s not good, what is a healthier choice to make healthy choices rather than picking up a bottle of wine or tequila or whatever it is, or the pain pills or anything like that. Going for a walk, taking the dogs on a hike, signing up for an AIDS walk or something that is in line with being good to yourself.
Gabe Howard: In another interview, you had mentioned that you started abusing drugs at the age of 12. And that blew my mind for for so many reasons. I have so many questions about that. But the biggest one that I have is how did you manage being an elite athlete and have a drug and alcohol problem at the same time? They seem so mutually exclusive to me.
Greg Louganis: Well, growing up, both my parents smoked, both of them drank. They were kind of my role models. And we were allowed to have an alcoholic beverage in the house. Was told to, Oh, it’s drinking responsibly. And it’s like, that’s crazy. It was kind of insane, but that’s what I was exposed to. And actually, now, when I was in college in the eighties, University of Miami was like everyone doing cocaine. That was the big thing. And what happened was party on the weekend and then came to practice on Monday morning. And I couldn’t make my optional dives because I partied so hard. And also, when you’re an elite athlete, things are available to you. Things are made available to you. Oh, let’s get Greg Louganis high. Or, you know, that sort of thing happens. And being young and impressionable as I can, just wanting to fit in. Sure you do. You go that route for a bit, but it depends on how committed you are in what your passionate pursuits are. And for me, at that time it was diving. So if it interfered with my diving, then I could set it aside. And I just didn’t look back. I never went back to cocaine. That was no longer a part of my life because it interfered with something that was more important than the drugs. So it wasn’t like I was finishing practice and hitting the bottle, you know, it wasn’t quite like that.
Gabe Howard: [Laughter]
Greg Louganis: You learn and grow to what you can do, what you can’t do, what’s what works for you, what doesn’t work for you. And through your youth, that’s what you’re trying to figure out, is finding out who I am and what works for me.
Gabe Howard: For this next question, we have to go all the way back to 1995. Now, picture Gabe. I’m a junior in high school and I’m watching you on television come out as HIV+. And you were one of the first celebrities that I remember doing so, especially since you were still alive. There were other celebrities that we heard about being HIV+, unfortunately, after their deaths. But you were there. You were strong, you were bold, and you were confident. And that’s what it looked like to me watching on television.
Greg Louganis: Yeah. I was just going to say confident? Not so much.
Gabe Howard: And that’s my question, Greg, because to me you did seem confident and brave. But what was actually going through your mind in those moments?
Greg Louganis: Well, I mean, there was I had my friends and family who were in my corner. A number of people by 95 more people knew in my close circle about my HIV status. And that’s the whole process of coming out to, you know, you come out and safe places, people where you feel that they’re going to embrace you and support you. And then through that embrace and support, you gain strength and confidence to go a little bit further and go a little bit further and go a bit further to where it just really doesn’t matter. Because that’s the one thing that I learned about secrets. I mean, a lot of times the secrets that we keep, we turn those into monsters and dragons that really don’t exist. You know, once we release those monsters and dragons, people will judge you, you know, just being open, honest and authentic, being who you are. And also, a lot of times we’re learning who we are, too, because pretty young at that time, but also a lot of therapy, a lot of work that I did on myself before I came out to a press conference and said, I’m Greg Louganis. I’m gay men living with HIV. It took a lot of that earlier with friends and family and people who were close to me before. I could have that type of confidence to come out in a public forum, in a press conference, to be able to really utter those words. And I don’t know that I uttered them with all that much confidence.
Gabe Howard: Sincerely, Greg, you had so much confidence. There’s a phrase that I like and it says, State your truth even if your voice trembles. And I’m sure that I’ve butchered that because I always butcher quotes, but I really focused on how brave this was for you and all of the people who you were helping. The LGBTQ+ movement was really in its infancy, at least from my perspective, my perspective as a straight, white teenager in the Midwest. And it was an amazing moment. But then the controversy started. You were vilified immediately. That had to wreck your mental health, because that’s not the direction that I imagine you wanted it to go.
Greg Louganis: So, I mean, I knew that, like I say, people are going to judge, but oftentimes that judgment comes out of ignorance. And so the key is education. If you can educate people about how you get HIV, but more importantly, how you don’t get it. And in writing the book, I told my coauthor, Eric Marquez, that I felt like I was living on an island with barely a phone for communication with the outside world. Because of all of these secrets. Because secrets isolate you. And keeping these secrets, I didn’t have a whole lot of support, just that few people, handful of people who knew. But I always had to put on a mask every day, which is exhausting.
Gabe Howard: It’s got to be completely exhausting. And you wrote that coming out as an HIV+ gay man helped you find inner peace.
Greg Louganis: Well, sure. I mean, just letting go of that. I don’t have to censor myself if I’m having a bad day, if I’m having issues with some of my HIV meds, hey, I can talk about it because that’s a part of life. I mean, there’s a lot of parts of our life that we’d rather not have to deal with, but it’s a part of life. Navigating and maneuvering and coming to making healthy choices and sharing those journeys help us to balance.
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Gabe Howard: And we’re back with the greatest diver of all time, Greg Louganis. You’ve had several suicide attempts in your life, Greg, and because of your celebrity, they’ve been discussed very publicly. What led you to those dark places and have you ultimately been able to overcome those feelings?
Greg Louganis: I was dealing with depression in a good portion of my life through my adolescence. Hormone changes, not feeling like I was normal. You know, I didn’t put sexual preference or sexual identity to it. It was just I knew that I was different. The last suicide attempt was actually over a guy, and I was in college, and then I realized, oh, my God, rather than put my energy into trying to off myself. Why don’t I try and figure out why I’m here? So that made a tremendous shift for me, is to put my energy into trying to figure out why I’m here, what’s my purpose. And a part of the book Breaking the Surface was really about letting go of those secrets and letting other people know that they’re not alone. Because back in 95, I mean, there were a lot of people who were hiding and there was a lot of fear. And so then coming forward with my HIV status freed me to the point where I didn’t have to worry about who knows and who doesn’t know. And then it can be a part of the conversation. If they ask, then I can educate and just share my experience. And so that we can we can navigate to be able to support each other.
Gabe Howard: Greg, one of the things that you said was that HIV taught me not to take anything for granted. I didn’t think that I would live to see 30. How did that attitude affect your overall mental health?
Greg Louganis: Basically when I was diagnosed. I mean, I’m so grateful that I was diagnosed when I was because I still had my diving know in 88. I mean, people were dying, people were dying. There were lots of memorials. There were lots of funerals. Rather than focusing on the disease, I was focused on my diving, which was much more positive and something that I knew it was I knew it’s something that I knew focusing on that it was something positive. So I didn’t get caught up and, oh, my God, what’s my T-cell count? What’s this? What’s that? With medications coming down the line. I wasn’t caught up in that whole mindset of looking for the next thing that’s going to keep me going. I was focused on getting to the pool and doing my list of dives and how well I could perform. That was a wonderful coping mechanism for me in dealing with my HIV, and I think that’s the reason why a lot of people didn’t tolerate AZT well, if they tolerated it at all. And I competed in the ‘88 Olympic Games on AZT. Now, we were concerned that we have to make sure that it’s not on the list of banned substances to be able to compete so that AZT is not a performance enhancing drug. It’s quite the opposite. It’s more like a chemotherapy. The medications that I was taking was depleting my performance rather than enhancing it. Going through that, I think really helped me maintain my health and wellness and of course, physical activity. It’s proven that physical activity is is very beneficial health wise. So I think that’s probably one of the main reasons why I’m still here today.
Gabe Howard: You’ve come so far. I’m sincerely I mean so far. And you’ve accomplished so much and you do so much. But what is life in 2022 like for Greg Louganis?
Greg Louganis: Yeah. I’m in a pretty good place.
Gabe Howard: I’m glad. I’m glad.
Greg Louganis: I’m in a pretty good place.
Greg Louganis: I’m looking for work. Like so many others out there. But no, I mean, but, you’ve got to have a sense of humor about everything. You’ve got to be able to laugh at everything. But life for me is I have two dogs. I share custody with another dog. My divorce is coming up final. The judge should should be signing off. And actually, I mean, my ex-husband, he’s a dear, dear friend. I mean, we’ve remain friends through this whole process. And, that was one thing that I was hoping that that we could do, is to get to the other side of this and still be friends. And we are. I would tell him, okay, when we come to the table, let’s bring our best selves. And as long as we bring our best selves we can get through this, and that’s basically what we’ve been doing and it’s been really wonderful.
Gabe Howard: Greg, I just want to ask while I have you here, you know, television shows like Family Guy have have poked fun at you in the past. How does that impact your mental health? How do you how do you feel about that?
Greg Louganis: I love it. Are you kidding? Yeah, I think it’s hysterical. I mean, I love that. I mean, I have a good sense of humor about who I am, and I don’t take myself too seriously. I love it when my name pops up. It just surprises me. It’s like, oh, my God. Oh, my God.
Gabe Howard: I just from now that I know that you have, like, a great sense of humor about it, it makes me wonder, do you when you’re sitting there and it just it just happens, does it does it brighten your day? Does it make you smile? Is it a mental health boost?
Greg Louganis: Yeah, for sure. Oh, my God. Yeah. I was on Saturday Night Live skit, and then I don’t know. I mean, people send me those things and I’m like cracking up. I’m like, oh, my God. You know, because people just want to be seen, right? And acknowledged. People are seeing and acknowledging me. I mean, I’m flattered. It doesn’t matter what context. What? I can’t remember one one way. I can’t remember who the playwright was, but somebody had a shrine to Greg Louganis. I’m like, oh, my God, that’s hysterical. Oftentimes I don’t always understand what it means, what, you know, because the double entendres and all that stuff. You know, but they mentioned my name. Oh, that’s so cool.
Gabe Howard: You know, I often think that that all discussions surrounding I’m making air quotes, taboo subjects, you know, things like HIV, LGBTQ, mental health, addiction. You know, we need to embrace humor as healthy. I mean, sometimes just throwing it out there, put it in people’s faces, can, in fact do a lot of good. But, you know, not everybody feels like like we do. Greg Some people are mortified by it. They’re very offended and they
Greg Louganis: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: Think that there’s a lack of decorum. So it was I didn’t know what answer I was going to get, but it sounds like we think a lot of like about these things.
Greg Louganis: Yeah. And I don’t take it too seriously. If it’s supposed to, if it’s something that’s supposed to offend somebody, then that’s whatever. It all comes back to the meaning we give things, right? So what meaning do you give it? And whatever meaning you give it, that that defines you. It doesn’t define the comment or the commentary.
Gabe Howard: Greg, I want to be able to direct our listeners over to your website.
Greg Louganis: Yeah. You can find me at GregLouganis.com.
Gabe Howard: Awesome. Greg, once again thank you so much for being here, I really appreciate it.
Gabe Howard: Sincerely. I mean, it’s, I don’t know if I was just the right age. I don’t, I don’t know. But, you know, I live with bipolar disorder and I’m a bipolar advocate. And I’m not comparing our stories. I’m just, you know, saying I had to be brave and stand up and say, I live with bipolar disorder. I had a suicide attempt. I was in a psychiatric hospital. And and there’s a lot of people that helped inspire me along the way. And
Greg Louganis: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: Sincerely, you are one of them.
Greg Louganis: Oh, thank you.
Gabe Howard: I am not on your level. I’m not. There was no press conference. Greg, I don’t want you to think I’m delusional.
Greg Louganis: No, no, no. That’s sweet. No, but I mean, everybody I mean, you know, we’re the stars of our own stories, right? And we all matter.
Gabe Howard: We do very much. So it’s I just want you to know that you were one of the many people who inspired me, that, hey, it’s going to be okay. And I know you said that you weren’t confident, but I got to tell you, you faked it till you made it so well. And I know that you inspired and moved a lot of people forward, and I
Greg Louganis: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: Wanted you to know that I was one of them. So.
Greg Louganis: Thank you so much, Gabe. That means so much to me.
Gabe Howard: Well, you are very, very welcome. And thank you to our listeners for tuning in. My name is Gabe Howard and I am the author of “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations,” as well as an award-winning public speaker who is available for your next event. My book is on Amazon, or you can grab a signed copy with free show swag or learn more about me by heading over to gabehoward.com. Wherever you downloaded this episode, please follow or subscribe to the show. It is absolutely free and hey, can you do me a favor? Recommend the show to a friend, a family member, a colleague, whether it’s social media, text message, word of mouth, recommending the show is how we grow. I will see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.
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