Diver Greg Louganis Returns to Dancing, His First Love, Before the Eyes of His Pal Ryan White

updated 11/09/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/09/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

It was a big night for Greg Louganis. The Olympic diving champion was in Indianapolis, making his professional debut as a dancer. He was in his dressing room contending with nerves when he heard that his buddy Ryan White was outside. Ryan, 15, had been specially invited to the performance by Louganis, but somehow he hadn't made it all the way into the star's presence. Ryan is probably the country's best-known young victim of AIDS, and he tires easily. Louganis found him sitting in the stairwell, slumped against a wall.

"You look nice, all dressed up, Ryan," said Louganis.

"Thanks," said the youngster, lighting up with pleasure. "Do you like dancing?"

Yes, said Louganis, he did. Then it was show time and Greg had to go. Ryan wished him luck and told him not to trip, then wondered how long the performance would last.

"Two hours," said Louganis, breaking the bad news.

"I hope I stay awake," said his friend.

Greg Louganis was born in San Diego 27 years ago to a couple of teenagers who gave him up for adoption to Peter and Frances Louganis of El Cajon, Calif. The Louganises provided a loving home for Greg and his adopted older sister, Despina, but he still had a troubled childhood. His peers called him "dummy" in school, and he didn't find out until he was 18 that he suffered from the perceptual disorder known as dyslexia. Only then did he know for sure that he wasn't retarded.

It was the abuse he took as a kid that once drove Greg to alcoholism—he has since stopped drinking—and that later motivated him to reach out to Ryan White. Ryan, a hemophiliac, was ostracized in his hometown of Kokomo, Ind., after contracting AIDS through a contaminated blood transfusion. "I couldn't believe the prejudice that kid was facing," says Louganis. "I wanted to meet him. He was a hero to me." In April 1986 Greg invited Ryan and his mother, Jeanne, to come watch him compete at the U.S. Diving Indoor Championships in Indianapolis. Afterward he gave Ryan his gold medal.

And now he was dancing. In fact Louganis had been a dancer long before he was a diver; in a sense, his debut with Dance Kaleidoscope in the 250-seat Indiana Repertory Theatre was the realization of a dream too long deferred. Greg had started taking dance lessons when he was 3. But when he was 9, his parents put a pool with a diving board in his backyard, and that made all the difference in his life.

Later on, even as he was racking up championship medals (and establishing himself, some say, as the greatest diver ever), he never forgot about dancing. He majored in dance and drama at the University of Miami and the University of California at Irvine, and was always the premier danseur in his college productions. It was no wonder, then, that the people at Dance Kaleidoscope, Indiana's only professional contemporary dance company, asked if he would consider dancing with them. It was no wonder either, when Greg threw himself into rehearsal, that Kaleidoscope artistic director Ginger Hall realized she'd found someone special. "He's got something in that soul of his," she says. "I think the world will be surprised at how much dance ability this man has."

The third number of the sold-out evening featured Louganis, Ginger Hall and two other dancers whirling and fluttering through a 12-minute piece called Strategy. Greg drew a tremendous ovation with a spellbinding leap in the final moment. "This guy is great, I'm telling you!" yelled a sweating Hall.

For the finale Greg danced in a fast-paced jazz piece, and once more he brought down the house. His excitement was palpable, as if he'd hit a perfect 10 off the springboard. Diving will continue to dominate his life through the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, where he hopes to repeat his 1984 gold-medal wins in Los Angeles. After that he'll forsake the board for the boards, mapping out a new career in acting and dancing.

In the middle of the post-performance party stood Ryan and Jeanne White, Ryan's sister, Andrea, and his grandmother and grandfather. They were lost in a roomful of dance aficionados in designer outfits, all sipping champagne and gushing about the evening's star performer, who was due to appear any minute.

Finally, Greg walked in, pushing his way toward the Whites in their sensible Hoosier clothes. Hugging them each in turn, he apologized for making them wait and said he wanted to come out for lunch at their house in Cicero, Ind. Then he leaned over to Ryan.

"I'm sorry that I took so long," he whispered.

"That's all right," said the boy, smiling, "you were great."

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