Greg Louganis had won silver in Montreal and two gold medals for diving in Los Angeles in 1984. In 1988 at the Seoul Olympic Games, Louganis was favored to win gold again in both the 3 meter springboard and the 10-meter platform events.
But that changed suddenly when Louganis hit his head in the 3-meter preliminaries, and fell into the water with blood seeping from his head. As he explained in a recent episode of Hang Up and Listen (the Slate sports podcast), “in that split second, I was the underdog.” (Listen from the 36-minute mark for the Louganis interview.)
Louganis went on to win gold in both the 3-meter and 10-meter competitions, ending the Olympic career of who some say is the greatest diver of all time. But the competition in 1988 was the toughest he faced with the Chinese coming on strong and challenging Louganis for diving supremacy. And more personally, it was only six months before when Louganis learned he was HIV positive. If the Korean authorities had known that, it is possible they would not have let him into the country to compete in the Olympics.
As the Slate interviewers asked in disbelief, after getting a concussion in the prelims, leaving blood in the water hiding the fact that he is HIV positive, the Chinese breathing down his neck as he battles to stay in medal contention….how did he focus.
Louganis replied with a laugh, answering as it wasn’t that big a deal to do so.
“That was my upbringing. I’ve been performing (for so long). I started dance and acrobatics when I was 3. I was taught, “Hey, the show must go on.” As soon as that music starts, there is no looking back. if you lose your place, you gotta catch up. You don’t get second chances. It was easy for me to compartmentalize my life because I had done so for so many years. We get good at what we practice. That is something I practiced a lot.”
Louganis is not alone. Almost all athletes at that level can narrow their focus on only the elements they know will contribute to their success. It amazes me that in interview after interview with Olympic athletes from 1964, very few were even aware that China set off an atomic bomb, or that the Soviet leader Khrushchev, or that a manned spacecraft was circling the earth – all during the Tokyo Games.
Here is the trailer for the recently broadcasted HBO documentary on Greg Louganis, entitled Back on Board.