Greg Louganis: From Olympic Gold To “Splash” To Finding His Soul Mate

Greg Louganis photographed by Clinton Gaughran for AfterElton

Take ten celebrities, put them in swimsuits, give them some training by a sexy Olympic legend and then make them dive into a swimming pool. There you have the basic concept behind ABC’s new reality competition series, Splash.

The reality competition series, which kicks off tonight, has celebs learning from the skilled prowess of Greg Louganis, the show’s Dive Master. But the hook of Splash is watching as the celebs – basketball icon Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, comedian Louie Anderson, actor/singer Drake Bell, comedian Chuy Bravo, reality star Kendra Wilkinson, actress Keshia Knight-Pulliam, skier Rory Bushfield, actress Nicole Eggert, Miss Alabama Katherine Webb, football’s Ndamukong Suh – grow (or not grow) as divers both physically and emotionally.

As you probably know, Louganis won Gold Medals in both 1984 and 1988 Olympic Games on both the springboard and platform events. He was diagnosed with HIV in 1988, wrote about the experience in the book Breaking The Surface (with Mario Lopez playing him in the TV movie based on it) and then publicly came out to Oprah Winfrey in a 1995 interview.

What you may not have known is that Louganis, now 53 and just as handsome as ever, took twenty years away from the pool before returning in 2010 and mentored the US Olympic diving team in 2012. With Splash premiering tonight, it was a good time to sit down with him to chat about his career, coming out publicly when others were not, his latest gig on Splash and how his current relationship has made him a believer in soul mates.

AfterElton: I remember when Dancing With The Stars first came out here in the States. I was like, ‘Really? Are you kidding me?’ And yet fans can’t get enough of it. Do you see Splash as fitting in with the same audience?
Greg Louganis:
You know, I’m hoping so. We’re really hoping that. Diving is a sport that you have to have a certain skill set. It takes time to learn that skill set. I think with the first season, we got our celebrities but then I believe they thought it was going to be easier than they thought. The ones that have put in the time, vast improvement, they’re doing really well. But a lot of them are just like, ‘Okay what do I need to do to get by?’ which puts me in a rough position because then I’m bartering, you know?

AE: Right. It is a competition.
It is. It is a competition, but each celebrity’s journey on the show is different. Like Chuy and Louie [Anderson]. God, getting Louie just to be healthy…he’s morbidly obese and trying to get him on the right path and educate him about food intake and how to work out…he doesn’t know how to work out.

AE: The fact that most of the celebrities aren’t athletes – or at least divers – is your approach different?
Not really, because behavior is behavior and it’s just trying to figure out what motivates each individual and how to appeal to them in such a way that can inspire them to kind of push themselves harder than they would if they were just left to their own devices. So it’s really been challenging. It’s fun.

Chuy, in my mind’s eye, his story is just so compelling. He almost drowned when he was seven and he was afraid of the water. Just the journey that we took together has really been transformational. And then once we got past the fear of water then there’s the fear of heights. So it’s like, ‘Wow.’ When he shows up, he shows up. [A show rep confirms that Chuy recently fractured his heel and will not be able to dive, however, he will continue to be a part of this season. Brandi Chastain will take his place in the competition in episode 2.]

AE: I know there was some press with Kendra shouting at you a few weeks back. Is there anything you’d like to say to that?
You know it’s interesting because it’s a totally different generational thing. I just go back to thinking about what behaviors we’re rewarding and also what is perceived as a reward. Her reward is the cameras, and she’s rewarded for bad behavior by getting her reward. It’s interesting because on camera she won’t admit it, so it’s like we’ve got to play a game.

Some of the things that I’m doing I would do probably with anyone, and I did apologize to her because when I do camps for kids I tell them, ‘If you argue your limitations, you own them.’ That’s not a secret. It’s like if you say you are afraid, you know what? You’re afraid. If you say you can’t do something, I’m not going to argue. You can’t do it. But how limiting that is, that mentality. It’s really kind of sad.


AE: Who of the cast surprised you with either their skill or maybe an unexpected emotional side that comes out of them?
You know I would have to say Drake Bell because he’s put in the time. He’s been there and he’s really improved. Show night, what happens, who knows? But he’s really put in the time and he’s really improved, learned a lot and has really come to enjoy the process.

And probably the other one that I’m really impressed with is Katherine [Webb]. She’s had a really busy schedule but when we get her working, she’s game and I love that. I love that about her, and also helping because she is young, trying to help her maintain perspective.

On Splash, Louganis mentors (l-r) Louie Anderson, Nicole Eggert,
Katherine Webb, Chuy Bravo, Drake Bell and Kendra Wilkinson.

Photo: ABC

AE: You originally were going to be a judge and then they made you coach on the show, right?
What happened was I was signed on to judge and then they watched the UK show which [had] a big emphasis on Tom Daley because Tom Daley is a huge Step-Up star in the UK and so they really centered everything around him. They liked how that played out. So then they moved me over to be Dive Master and it’s great. It’s great because it’s a much bigger position. But then again much bigger position, much bigger responsibility and all of that stuff.

I was away from diving for 20 years or so, and then I was training dogs and I couldn’t make that work financially for me so then the past few years I’ve been back in diving and it’s like, ‘Oh my God. All of my experience, that 20 years of practice.’ So when I go to coach or do anything, I don’t really see things the way that your normal coach sees it. I’m bringing all of the things that I learned in dog training. Because learning is learning, whether you are teaching a two legged creature or four legged creature.

AE: With you being publicly out for a long time now, do you see it as still an issue with the young people you come in contact with? Has it gotten better?
I think it depends on where you live because it’s such a diverse country. Fred Phelps is still around. I think for the most part, you know, when you go to metropolitan areas it’s like, ‘Oh yeah’ being gay is a non-issue. It’s like, ‘Well so what?’ I have a young friend who’s with a girl on one occasion and then he’s with a guy and it’s like, ‘what’s up with that?’ And he goes, ‘Well, I don’t like to classify myself.’ I’m like, ‘Okay.’

AE: Do you have young swimmers or just young people seeking you out to talk about coming out?
You know, I get e-mails and Facebook messages, and those are really sweet and we share. I think the thing that’s kind of the hardest for me is I have a lot of guys who just seroconverted and they’re scared. I get a lot of that. I’ve gone to a number of their doctors’ appointments when they’re talking treatment options, because I’ve been on just about everything. It’s been 25 years, so I was like, ‘You know, this is my experience.’ I just share my experience. I don’t know anything else. I’m not a doctor or anything else, but I can be there for support. It’s tough enough to get the news, but then when your doctor is trying to discuss treatment options it just like you don’t have a clear mind. You’re not even listening probably.


AE: So 25 years ago you were diagnosed with HIV and you came out publicly in the mid-90s…

AE: What were your thoughts at that time on the longevity of your life? Did you think you’d see your fifties? Were you hopeful?
No. I did not expect to be here at 53. I can’t remember when it was but it was like, ‘Holy shit. I’ve got to get a job. Oh my God. I’ve got bills to pay.”

AE: How has it been for you navigating dating as a celebrity? Is that something that you’ve mastered?
I hope so. For me it has been a positive progression. I made some bad choices, really bad choices. I guess people describe me as a serial monogamous so I was like, ‘I fall in love fast. I’m devoted.’ It just progressively got better. I make better choices and actually I am with someone.

Watching Louganis dive was and always will be poetry (and sexiness) in motion.

AE: What do you think pulls you towards somebody else? What attracts you to somebody?
It’s so funny, generally I usually went for opposites. You know, blonde hair blue-eyed and Johnny [Chaillot], when we first got together it was like, ‘We look like brothers.’ He has the same skin. The same skin tone, everything. I was like, ‘This feels really narcissistic.’ But I also realize the more I fall in love with him the more in love with myself. I always grew up hearing ‘Oh, your soul mate this and that.’ And I didn’t think it existed. I’m having second thoughts about that.

AE: How long have you guys been together?
Coming up to a year…I’ve always tried to make myself fit into somebody else’s life and then it turns around and they are trying to make themselves fit into my life and it doesn’t work that way. Here it’s like he has his life, I have mine, he has his identity, and I have mine. He’s secure with that.

AE: Now that you’re in this relationship, do your thoughts go to kids at all? Has that come up?
I’m not having kids. I don’t want to be an older parent. Even though my life is pretty active I know what it was like to have an older father. I’ll be the fun uncle. I think that’s good enough for me.

Splash premieres tonight at 8pm on ABC.