Greg Louganis Interview

Greg Louganis

More than 20 years after testing positive with Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), Greg Louganis is living a full and vibrant and healthy life. Though he retired from competitive diving in 1988, the four-time Olympic gold medalist still maintains a rigorous exercise regimen and involves himself in a host of causes. ABILITY’s Chet Cooper visited Louganis at his Malibu home to discuss life with HIV, growing up with dyslexia, and what has recently drawn the athlete back to the water.

Cooper: I want to start by asking you about an issue in the news right now. What are your thoughts about the "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy and the Defense Authorization Act?

Louganis: You know, the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell thing is basically encouraging people who are serving our country to lie to each other. That’s just absurd. Gay men and women have been serving this country for years, and with Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the whole thing has become a witch hunt through which people are outing other people. That’s ridiculous and it doesn’t serve our country.

It’s also unconstitutional, anyway, so the whole issue is kind of a no-brainer to me. If you take a look at Proposition 8, the Mormon proposition to ban gay marriage, then you can understand where this is stemming from. Religious hate fuels all of that stuff, playing on people’s fears and insecurities and misinformation.

Cooper: What do you think the actual fears are in the—

Louganis: It’s the religious right, essentially, who come forward with all the judgment. People are going to have the beliefs that they have. For myself, personally, my God is a loving God. So I don’t understand how things can be interpreted so hatefully. It’s written in Leviticus, I think, that you’re not supposed to eat rare meat, either. There are a lot of things in the Bible that aren’t relevant to what’s happening in this day and age.

Cooper: Have you been speaking out publicly about Proposition 8?

Louganis: Yeah. I’m doing a Swim for Equality tomorrow, actually. It’ll be a 1.7 mile swim from Point Dume to Zuma Beach. I volunteered for the swim to help raise awareness and funds.

Cooper: What other awareness campaigns are you involved in?

Louganis: I do a lot of work with Human Rights Campaign. That’s an interesting group. It brings together people who are in a position to effect change, bringing stories to them that they can find relatable. We’re trying to influence people in Congress, in the Senate, so everyone can see a human side of sexuality or of HIV.

Ultimately a lot of people want to stay within their comfort zones. Even people in the gay community stay within their comfort zones and don’t venture out, which is not always the smartest course of action. It’s important that people get to know various individuals and fully get to know who they are. So the Humans Rights Campaign means dealing with issues of sexual identity or HIV or whatever type of discrimination or minority that might be affected.

Cooper: What are the topics you usually address in your role as a public speaker?

Louganis: Generally I speak about diversity, although it all depends on what I’m being hired for. I tailor my talk to whatever message the group I’m visiting is interested in: HIV education awareness, diversity, peak performance, a motivational message. I’ve talked to medical groups, for audiences of HIV doctors and members of the HIV community, I’ve talked about compliance and the difficulties that we have in terms of treatment. I share my experience. I talk about depression, dealing with that. Dyslexia.

Cooper: Was your dyslexia a big challenge for you, growing up and in school?

Louganis: Well, I wasn’t diagnosed as dyslexic until I was a freshman in college. I remember I was actually given “dyslexia” as a vocabulary word in my freshman English class, and that was when I realized I wasn’t all of the things the other students had been calling me: “stupid”, “retard”, “moron”. I wasn’t those things. I was dyslexic.

So then I did go in and get tested. But ultimately you learn coping skills. I wasn’t so severely dyslexic that I couldn’t get through my day, it was just a hurdle in terms of the fact that it made reading and writing much more laborious for me.

Cooper: Does dyslexia pose problems today in your public speaking or acting?

Louganis: When I do public speaking, I have an outline, a list of bullet points. That’s how I manage my public speaking. I always know the stories, so I just want to make sure that I’m guided in such a way that those stories make sense and have logical beginnings, middles, and ends.

But if somebody were to hand me a script and say, “Read it”, that’s different. Because of my acting experience, I’ve had to learn how to do that. I can get through those experiences, but they are still struggles. Going in for cold readings is still very stressful. But you do the best you can with the tools you have.

Cooper: I understand that people with HIV today are living longer and longer because of the available medications, but I’ve been told that another phenomena has developed that influences aging, or—

Louganis: Yeah. The aging process is more rapid for us. Somebody sent me some information on that, and I know the person’s intent was good, but I really don’t focus on that crap. The situation is what it is. I don’t judge where I am and I don’t study the meds that I’m on. I go to my doctor’s appointment, he gives me the information, and once he puts that file away, I put it away, too.

I don’t live in my disease. As a consequence of that, I probably don’t know as much about the condition as many other people do who are in my situation. I’m not a doctor. I’m not a researcher. Why bog myself down with trivial stuff that I’m not going to understand?

Cooper: So you’re more about living in the moment than about trying to understand the science?

Louganis: Yeah. The science is fine for the doctors, and we certainly need that information in order to find out where we’ve been and how far we’ve come and potentially where we’re going. But that’s the job of doctors. It’s their passion. It’s not mine. I’m not going to dwell on problems and try to understand stuff that I don’t have a passion for.

Cooper: Then let’s talk about your passion for a bit. At what point did you discover you had a gift for diving?

Louganis: You know, quite honestly, I’ve been trained my entire life. I was dancing and doing acrobatics before I was two years old, performing onstage when I was three. The acrobatics evolved into gymnastics and the gymnastics evolved into diving. So I’ve always had a tremendous kinesthetic awareness.

What was really difficult for me was doing my one-man show in New York. I did that and it was so challenging—being dyslexic, memorizing pages and pages of monologue. The way I’ve always described that experience was as the longest 10-meter dive I’ve ever done. I hit the stage and I honestly didn’t know where I was going to land. But it’s through that rehearsal process that everything gets solidified so you know how to move from point A to B to C. You learn to trust it. You just do it.

Cooper: I heard recently that researchers have been able to prove Einstein’s theories about the relativity of time. I think we’ve all experienced time “slowing down” when we’re really in the moment. When you’re diving does time seem slower?... continued in ABILITY Magazine
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Art of AIDS/HIV cellsIt was July of 1981 when the New York Times first reported a flurry of cases of a rare cancer called Kaposi’s Sarcoma. The disease was found in gay men, most of whom lived in New York City and San Francisco. Kaposi’s Sarcoma can affect many different tissues of the body, presenting itself as dark patches when it involves the skin (as seen in Tom Hanks’ Philadelphia when his character begins to wear long sleeves and high collars to hide his lesions).

Around the same time as the Kaposi’s Sarcoma outbreak (which is a cancer of blood vessels mainly affecting the skin, mouth and lymph glands), doctors in New York City began to see a large number of gay men with unexplained flu-like symptoms: fevers, chills, and coughs. Most of these new patients had an unusual type of pneumonia caused by a fungus called Pneumocystis jirovici (carinii). This discovery presented an alarming scenario for doctors, since fungal infections are very severe and difficult to treat.

During the first year of the outbreak, about 1,600 cases of the fungal infection were reported and about half of the diagnosed patients died. Both Karposi’s Sarcoma and Pneumocystis jirovici (carinii) were previously seen only in patients whose immune systems had been depressed, most often due to having taken immune-suppressive drugs like those used by kidney transplant patients. Doctors soon realized that whatever was causing these conditions in gay men was a terminal disease.

By 1984 a surge of research efforts to discover the cause of these conditions led the Institut Pasteur in France to discover the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). A year later, Robert Gallo, MD, a virologist at the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland, proved the HIV virus was causing the unusual syndrome. By that time, however, the world was in the throes of a frightful epidemic known for virtually 100% mortality.

As research into HIV grew, the question of the virus’s root cause plagued medical science. Based on research from the 1990s at the University of Alabama, it is now widely accepted that the virus originated from monkeys. Various species of monkey are known to transmit a Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV) strikingly similar to HIV. It is believed that the virus mutated so it could cross species—an unusual trait, considering that most diseases in animals cannot be transmitted to man, and vice versa. How the disease managed to move from monkey to man is debatable, but the most accepted theory is that its transmission derived from the hunting and eating monkeys.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was a neurosurgeon-in-training in Washington, DC, a city with a large gay community. Because the HIV virus directly impacts the brain, spinal cord and peripheral nerves (often leading to unusual tumors and abscesses in the brain), neurosurgeons like myself found ourselves performing biopsies of lesions in the brains of gay men with AIDS, in a fervent attempt to diagnose and treat them.

AIDS raised serious concerns for surgeons and other health care professionals. While one cannot contract AIDS from touching or kissing a person with the disease, HIV can be acquired if a person’s blood manages to gain access to the provider’s bloodstream. This might occur by way of a needle, scalpel, or possibly even through a splash of blood in the eye. Blood transfusions in hospitals and intravenous drug abuse on the streets quickly became other methods of transmission of the virus. Sexually active heterosexuals are also not immune.

“Universal precautions” (techniques to reduce the risk of transmission of viruses) are practiced routinely in operating room and in other areas of medical practice. These preemptive measures, combined with a more thorough understanding of how HIV can and cannot be transmitted, have virtually eliminated medical professionals’ reluctance to treat patients with the disease.

Research labs and funding resources worldwide continue to direct their efforts towards discovering treatments, preventions and cure for AIDS. Much of this effort is devoted to developing a vaccine that will prevent the spread of the virus, but such a vaccine won’t help those who already live with HIV and AIDS.

HIV is a special type of virus called a “retrovirus”. In the past 20 years, several drugs called “anti-retroviral drugs” have become available. In regions where these drugs can be obtained (typically, more developed parts of the world), combinations of as many as three anti-retroviral drugs control the disease in large numbers of AIDS patients.

Unfortunately in underserved areas where the disease runs rampant, treatment is largely unavailable and the death rate for people with the virus remains close to 100%. Further complicating matters, the virus can be transmitted from an infected mother to her fetus, resulting in a child effectively born with AIDS.

As people with HIV manage their health, a new problem arises from successful treatment. How does the “controlled” disease impact the patient as he or she grows older? As there is still no cure for AIDS, the HIV virus is seldom completely eradicated from the body, necessitating people with the condition subscribe to a life-long regimen of medication. It would appear, however, that years of taking these medications—combined with the virus’s impact on the immune system—often take their toll. HIV patients are also more vulnerable to common diseases like diabetes, and diseases associated with aging (such as arthritis, dementia osteoporosis) tend to occur at a younger age.

While the AIDS problem has far from disappeared, what was once a death sentence can now be better viewed as a life sentence. Thomas Chappell , MD
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Articles in the Greg Louganis Issue; Ashley’s Column — Bringing Home the Gold; Sen. Tom Harkin — Where Are the Jobs?; Renne Gardner — Running With My Son; The Pearls — Stories That Demand to Be Heard; Amy Edwards — A Living Special Effect; Adaptive Sports — Getting Back in the Game; X Games Uncovered — Taking the Inside Track; Cityzen — A Whole New Voice in Rock and Roll; Adaptive Sailing — Finding Your Sea Legs; Greg Louganis — Still Diving Into Life; HIV and AIDS — Battling a Fatal Disease; Bad Boys — Cracking Down on Discrimination; Healthy Hoops — Take Your Best Shot ; ABILITY's Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences... subscribe

Excerpts from the Greg Louganis Oct/Nov 2010 Issue:

Greg Louganis — Interview

The Pearls — Stories That Demand to Be Heard

Adaptive Action Sports — Getting Back in the Game

X Games Uncovered — Taking the Inside Track

Toby Forrest with the Band Cityzen

Renne Gardner — Running With My Son

Healthy Hoops — Take Your Best Shot

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