Greg Louganis‘ life story, from becoming the most decorated individual diver in Olympic history to hitting his head on the springboard at Seoul 1988 while secretly competing HIV positive to coming out as a gay man and financial struggles are chronicled in an 87-minute documentary airing on HBO on Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET.
“The thing that I learned about going through the whole [filmmaking] process was I’m a lot more resilient than I give myself credit for,” Louganis, 55, said in a phone interview last week.
“Back on Board” featured footage and interviews from Louganis’ Olympic competition from 1976, 1984 and 1988. The Californian won five individual Olympic medals, including four golds, sweeping the springboard and platform at Los Angeles 1984 and Seoul 1988.
It also included Louganis’ struggles with foreclosure on his Malibu home of nearly three decades. He sold an Olympic swimsuit, competition medals and other belongings to make ends meet in recent years.
As early as Louganis’ first Olympics at age 16 at Montreal 1976, he said he was verbally abused by teammates’ anti-gay derogatory terms. Louganis said he probably would have retired after the Moscow 1980 Olympics had he won gold, but of course he missed those Games due to the U.S. boycott.
“Whenever I sign my autograph, I put the Olympic years and medals down — ’76 silver, ’80 boycott, ’84 two golds, ’88 two golds,” Louganis said. “I don’t want that Olympic team to be forgotten.”
Louganis’ interviews in the 1980s and ’90s with Barbara Walters, Larry King, Oprah Winfrey and Johnny Carson were scattered in the documentary.
But he said he wasn’t as celebrated as other 1980s Olympic champions such as Mary Lou Retton.
“Never got a Wheaties box,” Louganis said in the film. “Their response was that I didn’t fit their wholesome demographics or whatever. Basically, being gay, or being rumored that I was gay.”
Louganis said he learned before the Seoul 1988 Olympics that his boyfriend at the time had AIDS, so he got tested. Louganis came back HIV positive and blurted it out to his coach two weeks later.
A small group was in on the secret going into the Olympics, a time in which Louganis said he was taking medication every four hours and not getting a full night’s sleep.
“I didn’t think I would live,” Louganis said in the film.
Louganis’ coach smuggled his medication into Seoul, he said, because he wouldn’t have been allowed in if it was known he was HIV positive.
Then, in the 1988 Olympic springboard preliminaries, Louganis smacked his head on the board on his third dive. His blood spilled into the pool.
“I just wanted to hold the blood in,” Louganis said in the film. “Just not anybody touch it.”
He was stitched up by somebody not wearing gloves, made it back for his next dive and won the competition after the final the next day.
Louganis retired after the Seoul Games and didn’t publicly come out as gay and HIV positive until the mid 1990s.
”I had every expectation that if I went public with the fact that I’m gay, no one would want to hire me and I’d lose my house,” Louganis said in a 1995 press conference.
He spent about 15 years fading from the spotlight but returned to the Olympics in 2012 for the first time since 1996 as an athlete mentor with USA Diving.
Near the end of the film, Louganis is shown at the London Games staring at a laptop, looking at Facebook and YouTube posts and wiping away tears. He is seeing the news that gay 2000 Australian Olympic gymnast Ji Wallace came out as HIV positive, citing Louganis as an inspiration.
On the final Saturday of the Games, Louganis watched David Boudia win the platform title, becoming the first U.S. male diver since Louganis to earn Olympic gold in the event.
“It was so funny because it, for me personally, it came full circle because like when I won in 1988, the men’s platform, my last Olympic Games, and everybody was so emotional because it was such a tight contest,” Louganis said, recalling his 1.14-point win over China’s Xiong Ni. “I didn’t understand it [in 1988] because I was just doing my job. Then experiencing that with David, it comes down to the last dive. I was like all teary-eyed, emotional. I’m like oh my gosh, I get it, I understand.”
Louganis plans to return to the Olympics in Rio next year, working for Brazilian TV. He said that even though he came out with a book and a film in the 1990s, he had a message he wanted to convey with “Back on Board.”
“It was important to show that, hey, even if you’re an Olympic gold medalist, we’re all going through this,” Louganis said. “When you feel that you’re not alone, then it’s really empowering.”