Still from 'Back on Board,' courtesy of HBO
by Laura Hertzfeld
Throughout the 1980s, Olympic diver Greg Louganis was a symbol of American grace and athleticism – he was the saving hope of the U.S. Olympic Diving Team, earning four gold medals in 1984 and 1988 on both springboard and platform diving boards. After hitting his head on the board at the 1988 games, he bounced back from near-tragedy to win yet again. But it wasn’t until 1995 with the publication of his autobiography Breaking The Surface – detailing both his wins and the shocking news that he was gay and HIV+ – that Louganis became an icon to a generation. Almost 30 years later, however, his story has faded into the background. What happened to Louganis after his public coming out, including his financial struggles through the recession and his life now, is the focus of a new documentary from filmmaker and NYU professor Cheryl Furjanic. “I wanted to tell Greg’s story to different audiences, but to me he’s such an important part of sports history, LGBT history, and HIV/AIDS history. That is his legacy. They almost can’t make it up that his story is so entrenched in American history,” she says.
Larry King Now spoke with Louganis and Furjanic separately about the film and what they hope audiences learn from his story. Back on Board airs on HBO August 4 at 10pm.
Larry King Now: What do you hope people get out of the film?
Cheryl Furjanic: It feels like a missing slice of history. It’s important for people to know Greg’s story. In the history of HIV/AIDS, it’s important to see where he fits into that. He has the most incredible power of resilience and that’s an important takeaway for audiences, too. I’m hoping that he would have a career resurgence because of the film. That he can continue his great work – on aftercare, on anti bullying. He really has so much to offer on so many different levels.
Greg Louganis: I think something that I learned when I wrote Breaking The Surface – I was fearful that I was sharing all my weaknesses, but in sharing my weaknesses I was actually sharing my strength. And I feel the same way about Back on the Board. When people take a look at this, the black mold scare of 2006 and the ridiculous loans of 2007 and Countrywide, B of A – people who've been through all of that – they weren’t the only ones. I felt dumb and stupid, but then I learned, 'Hey, I’m not the only one.' I realized, 'Oh, wow, I wasn’t alone in all this.' So I think that by sharing those perceived weaknesses you’re actually sharing your strength and also empowering people that, hey, you can get through this, too.
Do you feel you paved the way for other athletes to come out? What do you make of Caitlyn Jenner’s journey?
GL: I did a play – Larry Kramer’s 'Just Say No' in Chicago – and I did the play with Alexandra Billing and she’s now on Transparent. And it's so exciting to see: Transparent came before Caitlyn came. It was a true education in that part of the LGBT. That’s where I learned so much, really through Alexandra Billing – her sharing her life and her journey with me. And really anybody's journey – whether you’re LGBT or straight, everybody has their own journey. In the trans community, each individual has their own journey. So I was able to learn a lot more. Alexandra was my teacher in that. So then when Caitlyn came out – that’s a whole other journey and really Caitlyn's journey is her own journey.
CF: It almost feels like in some ways Greg was kind of ahead of his time. He really did come out in this very significant way, not only being gay, but being HIV+ in the mid-90s. Seeing that Caitlyn Jenner got the ESPY Award was kind of stunning and kind of amazing to see where we are. It’s 20 years ago that Greg’s book came out and 20 years later a trans person is accepting a sports award. Greg paved the way for these people to come out in the way they are. I don’t know if he would say that, but I’m saying that. Greg has written this letter to his 16-year-old self of things he wishes he could tell himself. This movie is a letter to my younger self in a way, as a queer kid. Having all these folks out and doing what they do, I definitely see parallels.
Still from 'Back on Board,' courtesy of HBO
Why make a movie about Greg?
CF: My producer Will Sweeney knew I had made doc about Olympic synchronized swimming and he had read that Greg was returning as a mentor and a coach. [I thought] 'Why isn’t there a current documentary about this guy?' We’d seen the Joan Rivers doc [Joan Rivers: Piece of Work] and it felt like Greg deserved a film in the way that film told Joan’s story. You came away having empathy for her. It feels very important to have a film like that about Greg.We could have made a 10-part series about Greg Louganis because there really is that much to tell.
How different would your experience on the Olympic team have been if it had happened today?
GL: When I came out it wasn’t really fashionable. There was a lot of misinformation – it’s not like it is today. It really got me thinking, ‘Gosh, if I had come out now things might have been really different.’ I’m proud of the fact that I didn’t shy away from it. I was diagnosed with HIV in 1988and it was still viewed as a death sentence. There was a lot of fear and misinformation surrounding HIV. I didn’t expect to live. I was only 28. I didn’t expect to see my 30th birthday. As life went on, treatment evolved.
Do you worry that AIDS/HIV has gone out of fashion as a cause, that people are getting lax?
GL: It’s encouraging that options are out there and treatments are much more tolerable. Obviously: prevention, prevention, prevention. I wouldn’t wish my drug regimen on anyone and it's expensive and not everyone can afford it. Health and wellness is a heck of a lot cheaper and less stressful, so I always advocate prevention and education and awareness. What we’re finding is early detection, early treatment can prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. It’s a double-edged sword. We’ve come a long way but I still don’t view it as a treatable condition or a chronic condition.
You didn’t have a lot of role models in similar situations growing up. Who are some of the people – athletes and others – you have to look to now, yourself included, and who were your role models then?
GL: When it comes to role model or heroes, I really don’t have any. There are people that I admire – I admire aspects of who they are, whether they be an incredible actor or an incredible dog agility handler. There are people I admire, but I don’t really look to others as heroes or role models. Because I always feel like I can do better. And that’s what I encourage young people to do – to look inside of themselves to find their own heroes and be those heroes that they want to be.
You recently got married – the film follows that. With the recent gay marriage rulingfrom the Supreme Court, have you ever had an interest in getting involved in politics in a bigger way?
GL: It's funny because I've always said, 'I'm not political, I'm not political.' But you look at my life and it’s political just by being me. And I think that’s what I’m the best at – just being me. It’s not that I want to get in the fray of all of that, it’s just all I can do is share who I am. If that's a political statement it's not intended to be, but I understand the responsibility that comes with that. As long as I stay true to myself and be the best person I can be I don’t really have any regrets.
Would you ever consider running for office?
GL: Absolutely not! [laughs]
It sounds from the film like working with the team in 2012 was a really positive experience. Are you continuing to work with the Olympic team for 2016?
GL: I’m open to whatever. There are other passions that I’m pursuing. I’m working on writing a musical with a friend of mine, we’re workshopping that hopefully over the summer. Next year is the Olympics in Rio so [I'm] gearing up for that. It does look like I’ll be going over to Rio for Globo TV. There's exciting things on the horizon.
The film catches a lot of important moments in the past couple years. Was that just coincidence?
CF: When we started the film, it felt like there was still work to be done in some of the spheres we were touching on – Michael Sam wasn’t out yet, etc. Greg’s story still feels like it’s at the forefront of these issues. Marriage equality – Greg couldn’t have gotten married when we started making the film and he could when we finished. We kind of stumbled on to something that had that synergistic timing.
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