THE FIRST TIME GREG LOUGANIS HIT the boards was at age 3. In top hat and tux, the tyke who would one day become the greatest diver in Olympic history skipped onto the stage during a dance-class recital. Cane in hand, he tapped and sang "Dance with Me." Everything went swimmingly—until his exit. Then, confused about whether to go left or right, little Greg stood center stage and began to cry.
Happily, Louganis, 33, now has his stage directions down pat. In September he made his New York City acting debut in Jeffrey, Paul Rudnick's randy off-Broadway comedy hit about gay men in the age of AIDS. In the play, the winner of Olympic double gold (for platform and springboard diving) in 1984 and 1988 makes his first entrance garbed, as usual, in a bikini—yet he emerges not from a pool but from a bed full of writhing men. Louganis, a staunch AIDS activist since 1987, was drawn to his role as Darius, an HIV-positive chorus boy in Cats, he says, because "he's in a negative situation but makes the best of it. That's what I found life to be all about."
As a child in El Cajon, Calif., Gregorios Efthimios Louganis, the adopted son of a Greek-born tuna fisherman and his wife, had his own negative situations to overcome. He stuttered, and kids called him "retard" because he was dyslexic and "nigger" because his biological father was Samoan, so Greg's skin tended to darken in the sun. But Louganis got even by taking up tumbling, then diving, and in 1976, at 16, won his first Olympic medal: a silver in the platform event. He majored in drama at the University of Southern California at Irvine, so when he retired from diving in 1988, Louganis tried regional theater, landing roles in The Boyfriend and Cinderella. Still, until Jeffrey, he viewed his acting career as a wipe-out. Discouraged by the lack of job offers, he admits, "I was ready to throw in the towel."
This time round, Louganis seems undaunted. "I know I have homework to do," he says. "I wasn't an overnight success in diving either." Whatever his fate as an actor, he knows he'll always be No. 1 with the five Great Danes who share his $400,000 Malibu beach home (bought with Speedo swimwear endorsements). As for human companionship, Greg isn't talking. "As far as I'm concerned," he says, "I've always kept my private life private."
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