Greg Louganis His Greatest Victory
02/08/2010 at 01:00 AM EST
Padding around his Malibu home in bare feet, a deeply tanned Greg Louganis looks relaxed, rested and remarkably healthy. Gazing out over his backyard pool, with its Olympic-ring logo and a platform perfect for practicing reverse somersaults, the four-time gold medalist gestures to his four dogs and says something surprising: "They use it more than I do." Diving, he says, feels "like a totally separate life."
More than 20 years after learning he was HIV positive—a diagnosis widely seen as a death sentence at the time—Louganis, who turned 50 on Jan. 29, is thriving. Exercise, acupuncture and medication have helped keep his immune system and 5'9", 175-lb. frame strong, and while the virus remains in his body, it is now undetectable. Says his doctor Tony Mills: "He's in excellent health."
Louganis's daily life reveals little evidence of his illness. He takes 10 pills like clockwork—half in the morning, half at night—and undergoes regular blood tests to check his immune system. Aside from being potentially more vulnerable to illness, he's a typical fitness-conscious Californian who hits the gym daily (current favorite workout: hip-hop dance class) and worries about the silver streaks in his wavy mane. "I take my meds and go about my business of living," he says. "I don't really dwell on it."
That attitude has helped Louganis persevere, says his doctor, even in the face of such threats as a fast-moving staph infection that nearly claimed his left leg a few years ago. "To hit your head on a diving board, have it sewn up, get back on the board and win gold—it's that spirit," says Mills, referring to the infamous accident at the '88 Olympics in which Louganis bashed his head during prelims as the world flinched in horror. "He's an amazing man with this amazing flame in him that doesn't go out."
Louganis—who retired from the sport after the '88 Games—has replaced diving with another passion: the four dogs he lovingly calls "the kids" (Nipper, Dobby, Gryff and Hedwig; yes, he's a diehard Harry Potter fan), whom he trains for canine-agility contests. "They've helped me find my strength," says Louganis. "Because it wasn't always there."
Adopted by Greek-American parents and raised near San Diego, Louganis was taunted as a child over the color of his skin (his birth father was Samoan) and his then-undiagnosed dyslexia. "They called me retard, dummy, moron," he says. "I got beat up at the bus stop a lot."
But he found his calling on the diving board, taking the sport by storm after winning an Olympic silver in 1976, at age 16, and going on to win two golds at the '84 Los Angeles Games and two more in Seoul in 1988. "He was a superhero," says pal Jeanne White-Ginder, 62, whose son Ryan got HIV from a blood transfusion and died in 1990 at age 18. "Yet he's always put others before himself."
Still, behind the medals and winning smile, he struggled privately. "Secrets are incredibly isolating and exhausting," says Louganis, who came out of the closet and revealed his medical secret in his 1995 memoir Breaking the Surface. Battling depression and addiction, Louganis—who endured a relationship with an abusive partner (who died of AIDS-related illness in 1990)—stole his dad's pain pills after his death in 1991 and went to rehab a few years later after a severe infection in his colon left him hooked on meds. He spiraled again after the 2004 death of his mom, Frances. "She was my rock," says Louganis, who would drink heavily to numb the pain. "When she passed, I was lost."
A 2006 DUI arrest was a "huge wake-up call," he says. "I asked myself, 'What the hell are you doing?'" Now more than three years sober, he's in a loving relationship with Daniel McSwiney, 46, whom he met online and who is HIV-negative. "Greg's got the biggest heart," says McSwiney, a former computer programmer. "And he's a goofball at times."
What challenge would the five-time Olympic medalist love to tackle next? "Dancing with the Stars," he says with a smile. "It would be a blast."
In the meantime Louganis is happiest whippng up Greek dishes at home and roaming the country in his 40-ft. RV with Daniel and the dogs, which bring an inner peace he has long sought. "I'm much more comfortable in my own skin now. I am," he says, "where I need to be."