What do you think of when you think of Greg Louganis?
Inspiring champion diver. Olympic gold medalist. LGBTQ activist. Longtime HIV survivor. Mentor. Author. Entrepreneur.
I think of Speedos. At the mere mention of his name, I get a vivid and bold image in my mind of that 1980s diver with the perfectly muscled, Coppertone-tanned body in a perfectly fitting, all-American swim pantie.
Greg Louganis was in the 1984 Olympics, it was the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school. I was 16, chubby, awkward, embarrassed and obsessed with marching band, theater, choir and the Go-Go's. Then the Summer Games began, and there he was on the TV in my parents' living room: a young, dark, handsome man, athletic and lithe and nearly naked, perched in perfection on the elevated platform above the crowd. His face showed deep concentration as he prepared for his dive. Then, before you knew it, he sprung into the air, miraculously dazzling with twisting and somersaulting and turning, finally entering the water with nary a splash. And then, post-dive, he pulled himself out of the pool with agile strength, smiling beguilingly at the camera, melting America's and my hearts with that gorgeous mug. He became an American hero, winning his first gold medal.
In 1988, during the next Olympics, I was living in New York going to acting school. My sort-of-boyfriend and I watched Greg in his second Summer Games. We gazed and gasped with the country and the world as he struck his head on the springboard while diving and, with his head bleeding, kept on competing, again showing bravery and heroism, again winning gold. I was in awe.
Fast forward to last week. TheBody.com asked me to be a correspondent for the AIDS Service Center of New York City's 25th Anniversary Celebration and 2016 Changemakers Awards, honoring New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, Olympic hero Greg Louganis and attorney Joseph Saltarelli of Hunton & Williams. I was skeptical, because I'm not what you'd call a hard-hitting newsman. But wait. WHAT? Greg Louganis? THE Greg Louganis? My high school TV crush? The 16-year-old boy in me was all a-titter! How could I say no?
"Be cool, Charles," I told myself, "remember, you're there to do a job." I was nervous. I'd never really been a guest at an event like this, let alone a correspondent. What should I say? What should I ask? What should I wear? I was at a loss. My best thinking was to bring a Wheaties box for him to autograph.
I arrived at the chic Tribeca Three Sixty location at the beginning of the reception when barely anyone was there. I didn't know anyone and felt like a fish out of water.
The room filled up, and soon the media time with Greg was at hand. Other media folk were prepared, teams with cameras and microphones, and there I was with my Android phone that I don't quite know how to use. I was so nervous, and there he was, Greg Louganis! I started to sweat. The Wheaties box under my arm was getting heavy as I tried to figure out how to worm my way in to meet him. I had to force myself not to jump up and down like a little girl. Finally, I had my shot, with probably about two minutes alone to ask a question.
"OMYGODHI!" I gushed at him, calling him amazing about 17 times. He was terribly sweet. Then I pulled it together and asked him a serious question: "As a long-term HIV survivor, what do you think are the major issues that need to be talked about regarding HIV and AIDS in the modern world?
He thought for a moment, then said, "Well, so much has changed since the devastating days of the '80s and early '90s. I think the major problems are still the shame and stigma that surround HIV, and the fact that funding for services vital to people living with HIV are threatened with cuts. We need to do everything we can to keep HIV issues in people's minds to make sure that people living with HIV have access to all the care they need."
I shook his hand, thanked him and walked away. Getting him to sign my Wheaties box seemed trite.
The evening progressed, and the reception moved into the awards ceremony. We toasted the 25 years of amazing work that the AIDS Service Center NYC has done and their rechristening as the Alliance for Positive Change, a name better reflecting the comprehensive work they do. Speakers included founder and executive director Sharen I. Duke, changemaker Joseph Saltarelli and, representing changemaker Gov. Cuomo, Counsel to the Governor Alphonso David. But the star speaker, the eleven o'clock number, as it were, was Greg Louganis.
He humbly thanked the Alliance for naming him a changemaker. He spoke about the amazing work that the Alliance does, supporting their clients in a holistic way, meeting them where they are. The Alliance not only supports their clients with medical and behavioral health services, they also assist with work placement, housing, harm reduction and recovery treatment services. He spoke about his own HIV experience, how he was diagnosed just weeks before he was to be in the '88 Olympics and had to fight to find the strength to keep training and show up.
Then Louganis paused and went off his speech. He spoke about the state of the country. "I'm usually a pretty quiet person," he said. "I think the answer to most conflict is to remain silent. But when the answer calls for me to speak, I tell myself to use my outside voice. And it's time for all of us to use our outside voices."
The audience applauded, and I got a lump in my throat. I realized how much that young diver on my TV had grown into an amazing man, helping others and using his influence for good. And, I realized that I had also been invited there, no longer the awkward 16-year-old, privileged to hear the heroic diver's challenge to use my voice.
After he finished and left the stage, I remembered my Wheaties box. Silly, but it was now or never, so I went up to him and asked him to sign it. The cover of that Wheaties box is a famous image of him in a diver's pike position, of course in Speedos. And to me, he scrawled, "Charles, Believe in yourself! Greg Louganis."
That's what heroes do: encourage and inspire others. The 16-year-old me would have floated home. I was happy to take the subway.