Greg Louganis is plunging into a new role as a mentor to U.S. Olympic divers in a sport dominated by China, and to do the job the four-time gold medalist is relying on tricks he learned from handling show dogs.
Louganis is one of the last U.S. divers to triumph at the Olympics, and many call him the best diver ever. At the 1988 Games in Seoul, South Korea, he hit his head on the springboard in a preliminary round and had stitches, but went on to win.
Since that dramatic showing, Louganis has acted on stage and in a few movies while living with HIV for nearly 25 years.
Last year, he was named athlete-mentor for USA Diving, a job that will bring him to the July 27-August 12 London Olympics. The next stop for the young divers Louganis is helping guide is the U.S. Olympic team trials set to start on Sunday.
In the dining room of his hillside Malibu home overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the California native told Reuters diving has become a tough sport for American athletes.
"The state of diving globally right now, it's the entire world chasing China ... like in so many things," Louganis said.
China won all but one event in Beijing in 2008, and the last U.S. diver to claim gold was the late Mark Lenzi in 1992. Some of the best U.S. divers now looking to upset the top-ranked Chinese are David Boudia, 23, and Christina Loukas, 26.
Louganis, 52, said one reason for China's dominance is its advanced development system for athletes. But even if U.S. divers might not be selected as young as the Chinese and not have the same amount of time to devote to the sport, they can still succeed if they "train smart," he said.
Louganis years ago took up the sport of dog agility, in which he guides canines through an obstacle course of ramps, tunnels and hurdles. The silver-haired Louganis said that experience applies to mentoring athletes, and helps him overcome doubts he has "anything to offer" Olympic hopefuls.
"In training the dogs, working with the dogs and understanding behavior and learning, I have a much better grasp of the learning process," Louganis said.
BULLIED AND GAY
But there is also a deeper dimension to his mentoring. The former champion said he talks to athletes about everything, from being bullied as a child -- when he was called "sissy" and worse -- to long ago accepting the fact he is gay.
"Everything is kind of laid out there," he said. "And so by doing that, you're offering them a safe place to go."
Louganis' teenage birth parents were of Samoan and Northern European descent, and he was adopted at nine months of age.
Louganis, who won silver at age 16 at the Montreal Olympics in 1976 and went on to study theater in college and then win four gold medals, had Ron O'Brien as his coach. "He understood me, and I wasn't an easy one to understand," Louganis said.
"I wasn't a competitor," Louganis said, as he sat drinking from a carton of coconut milk, at a glass table supported by small statues of nude men.
"It's not a competition, it's not an 'I'm going to kick your ass' thing. It's a performance, and it always had been for me."
Louganis in 1988 was diagnosed with HIV six months before the Olympics, at a time when the disease he said was thought of as a quick "death sentence." Olympic host South Korea then barred HIV infected people from entry, and Louganis kept his disease a secret.
In 1995, Louganis admitted in a television interview he had HIV, which led to some questioning in the media about whether he put other divers at risk of infection by bleeding into the pool when he hit his head in Seoul. Medical experts downplayed the possibility.
These days, Louganis spends his days working on a book about learning and success, while he takes trapeze lessons and spends a lot of time with his two dogs, Freeway and Nipper.
USA Diving spokeswoman Jennifer Lowery said Louganis has also traveled all over the country, from Ohio to Texas, in his job as a mentor for the organization.
"He's won four gold medals, so he knows what it takes to succeed and he's able to share those stories with the athletes," Lowery said. "They're hearing it from someone who is a legend."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)