I had the pleasure of interviewing Greg Louganis. Greg Louganis is a five-time Olympic medalist in the three-meter and 10-meter diving events, and he is the first man in Olympic history to sweep the diving events in consecutive Olympic Games. Born in San Diego, Louganis won a record 47 national titles and 13 world championships throughout his diving career. He captured his first Olympic medal at the Olympic Games Montreal 1976, placing second in the tower event. Louganis won two titles at the 1982 world championships and was the first person to receive a perfect score of 10 from all seven judges in an international event. He proceeded to win gold medals in both the three-meter and 10-meter events at the Olympic Games Los Angeles 1984, both with record scores and leads over his opponents. However, at the Seoul 1988 Games, a concussion Louganis sustained during the preliminary rounds of the three-meter event almost dashed his medal hopes. But Louganis competed despite the injury, claiming two gold medals and becoming the first man in Olympic history to sweep the diving events in consecutive Olympic Games. After his competitive diving career, Louganis became a LGBTQ+ activist and worked frequently with the Human Rights Campaign to defend the civil liberties of the LGBTQ+ community and those diagnosed with HIV.
Thank you so much for doing this with us. Our readers would love to learn more about your personal background. Can you tell us more how you grew up?
I was born in San Diego. I actually spent my first nine months in foster care. And then I was adopted when I was nine months old. I grew up in El Cajon, CA. During my upbringing, I started dance and acrobatics when I was a year and a half and performing on stage when I was three. I got a partner when I was three but we couldn’t compete in talent contests until I turned six. Until then Eleanor Smith and I did a lot of recitals, theater and parades. At that time, I got second billing. Then Eleanor went into gymnastics and I followed her into it.
My dream was to make the Olympic team in gymnastics. When I was eight years old we had a pool built in our backyard. One day, I was trying some of my gymnastic stunts off the diving board at home and my mom didn’t want me to kill myself so she got me lessons. And the first day out my coach asked if I would join the club team and I said, “Oh, I’ll think about it”. I had gymnastics and now diving. It just kind of evolved. I was competing in all of this. Back then I probably would have been diagnosed with ADHD, but I was just an active kid and my mom wanted to keep me busy, so that when my dad came home, I was calm.
I have all this energy that was distributed between dance acrobatics, gymnastics and diving. But that took its toll on my body. So, when I was about 12, I had Osgood-Schlatter’s, water on the knee. My doctor had recommended that I quit everything, but I could continue diving, because we’re landing in water. All of that energy was then focused into one discipline. Then a year later, I was world champion for my age group. And then three years after that, I was on my first Olympic team.
Who inspired you to pursue your career?
It would have been my mom. The funny thing is my mother was never a stage mom. Her attitude was always there. We had props that had to be put up, and she was assembling the props, so that my partner and I could perform. But it when she’d give her recommendations for me and she would say, “go out there smile and have fun”. That’s what I got from my mom.
My partner on stage had more of a stage mom. “Remember this, remember that, transition”, and in the dance, “point your toes and all of that stuff”. Eleanor turned to me and said “I wish I had your mom”. She was so wonderful. That was her demeanor, her attitude towards all the stuff that I did.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
I’d have to go back to my mom. I remember when I was five years old there was somebody in my class who was having a birthday party. The birthday party was the same time as a recital that I was already scheduled for. Because I wanted to go to the birthday party I went to my mom and said, please I really want to go to my classmate’s birthday party. I was pleading with her. She said, if you go to the birthday party, then you’re making a choice and that means that we’re not going to be paying for your dance and acrobat lessons.
That was the first time that I was faced with making a choice — which was wonderful as a five year old kid, to say, I made a choice. It was my choice to go to the recital, because I had already committed to it. And I saw the logic in it and taking responsibility. That was a tremendous lesson.
I didn’t realize it at that moment and I was probably pouting and didn’t want to do this. But I enjoyed doing the recital so much, and that brought me joy. So it was definitely a lesson on awareness, because then I realize these are choices that I’m making. It’s not things aren’t happening to me. They’re happening for me, which is so great.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your sports career? What lesson or takeaway did you learn from that?
Okay, there’s two stories. I was staying at my aunt’s house for a competition and there was a break in the event. After the break we did a few of our dives. Then we had another break and then we came back to the pool and finished out our dives. When I came back to the pool, I pulled down my sweats and I realized that forgot I left my bathing suit in the bathroom. So we had to go back to the bathroom to get my bathing suit.
The other one was when I was in the Nationals. There was a pool in Santa Clara that had a window, like you see at SeaWorld. I was competing on the platform and my mother was sitting in the stands. The window that was near the diving platform was right behind the bleachers. All of a sudden my mother heard screams and someone near my mother said, Oh, my God, what happened? I had just dove into the pool. After I dove somebody turned to my mother and said, “there’s a window down below and he lost his bathing suit”.
It’s funny to look back and laugh at it.
As an athlete, you often face high stakes situations that involve a lot of pressure, many of us tend to wither in the face of such pressure and stress, can you share with our readers three or four strategies that you use to optimize your mind for peak performance before high pressure, high stress situations?
When preparing for a major competition, the new Olympic Games, or going from prelims to finals the night before to get a good night’s sleep I would visualize and go through my dives. I would do a visualization at the pool that I was competing at. The visualization would include the audience, where the audience were, where the cameras were. Since I had been in that venue before, it was very easy for me to read and conjure that image backup. It also helped me to get into the feeling and the sensations and the temperature as acutely and as accurately as I could. Because I work with athletes, performers, ballroom dancers and dog agility athletes, I stress to them that it’s important when you do your visualization work that you get the visualization at speed or faster.
And the reason why I say faster is because when I learned visualization, I was three years old. What happened was we were doing a recital and I was preparing for the recital and then we had the costume that was added. There there was a top hat, there was a cane and there were some adjustments in the choreography and I think my teacher was so frustrated with me. I said, okay, just do the routine fluid. And she put the music on and left the room. I was only three years old. So my interpretation was do the routine in my head fluid. And it took me four times to where I didn’t miss any transition and it was fluid. After the fourth time and it was fluid, I went to find my teacher in her office and I said, okay I did it fluidly. When she came back into the studio she increased the tempo of the music, and then said, okay, make it fluid and play the music. And I was able to make it fluid. And then she said, you’re ready. Because I was three years old, had I gone through the routine over and over again until I got it right and my muscles would be so fatigued and exhausted that I probably wouldn’t have been able to perform. So that’s how I learned visualization.
And at three years old, your perception doesn’t go much beyond yourself. You think everybody knows what you know. And so I didn’t think of it as anything special. And then in the late 70s, early 80s, the sports psychologist started coming around the pool and said, Oh, have you tried mental imagery or visualization? And I said doesn’t everybody do that?
That’s the reason why when I work with athletes and performers I tell them to visualize in real time, or faster, because then you can anticipate. And then you have the confidence that you’re ready. And with the people that I work with it’s almost like a Charlie Chaplin movie and it may make me laugh.
The other thing that I love to do in my visualization is set it to music, because everything we do has timing and rhythm, and if you find that rhythm, stay in the rhythm things are so much easier and flow so much smoother.
Can you tell us a story of your transition from a professional athlete to successful businessperson, athletes and, and business?
There are so many parallels. And as an athlete, oftentimes you don’t see those parallels initially and it can be challenging. That’s the reason why I think a lot of athletes have difficulty. Some of the things that I learned I didn’t see as value and then how to translate that to business. And through the process, through friends, through asking questions and becoming aware, I’ve been able to connect the dots a bit better. And with athletes once they get it, they get into staying in the groove and that rhythm.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting new projects you’re working on now?
We have a biopic that hopefully we’ll be able to get into production soon. I’m also writing a musical with a couple of friends of mine. Patrick Allen Casey is writing the music. Judy Norton is writing the book. And I am launching some online courses, as well as coaching and high-end coaching to executives.
Do you think your experience as a professional athlete gave you the skills that may then make you a better entrepreneur? Can you give a story or example?
I was just in clubhouse talking about it, and it’s resilience. Often times you finish college and you have studied many things but you don’t end going into that field. So remain flexible and be able to maneuver. It takes that thought of failure away, because the only way you can fail is if you stop trying.
I’ve started emailing certain people saying, can you do this? And I’m thinking, Oh, nobody’s gonna respond. If I didn’t actually put it out there, I never would have known or had these opportunities. It’s just putting yourself out there, which I think is the scariest thing for some people to do.
As soon as you put it out there, you realize, Oh, my God, I’m not alone. The support that you get is just been really incredible.
Can you share your five work ethic lessons that entrepreneurs can learn from athletes?
1 ) One of the big lessons that I learned from my diving is be intentional on how you show up. In one of the clubhouse rooms, somebody was talking about intentional practice. I was working with the athletes and the divers that were preparing for London and Rio. The first question I asked them was What’s your ultimate diving goal? And they said, “make the Olympic team” and I said, Okay, and then what?
Making the Olympic team will not to get you to the podium. Did you want to bring something home? Don’t you want to win? They weren’t thinking that way. USA diving has been a sport in the US that we’ve been pretty dominant in. And then in 2000, we got one medal and it was gold by Laura Wilkinson. And then in 2004 they added four more events and four more shots at medals. That year we got zero medals. In 2008 we also got zero medals. I challenged the athletes. I said in practice and in your daily training at least 20% has to be devoted to training as if you are at the Olympic Games. Setting up the scenarios, imagining the stands filled with people, cameras that are placed in strategic places, the judges, the judging panel. You have to have all of that set and devote that training session to training as if you are at the Olympic Games. Because then that way, when you finally get there you’ve already been there.
2 ) Two, the other thing that I tell the athletes is, when you go to an Olympic venue you walk into that natatorium. And there’s an energy, it is palatable. When you walk into that venue and you feel this energy then if you interpret that energy as pressure you’re more apt to implode. But if you interpret that pressure that energy as inspiration that can catapult you to levels that you never dreamed possible.
3 ) Third, getting a medal or just making the team. You would think you’d want to go get that gold medal, be on that top of the podium and represent the US. It’s a huge honor to make the Olympics, but to get on that podium is even bigger.
In diving China is such a powerhouse. China was my competition. So they’re already in their own minds placing them under that. I told the athletes when you go to the Olympic Games that’s a whole different animal because you have the media and you have the entire world watching. People make mistakes. Look everybody’s human.
4 ) Fourth, when you’re on that stage it’s about your mindset, just be there in the moment, which is very powerful. I think a lot of people just are so all over and don’t see how amazing that moment is.
5 ) Fifth, they get concerned with what other people are doing or saying it’s a distraction which deviates from the energy that they need to focus because that’s an amazing time. If you’re at the Olympic Games you need to focus on your job, you’re on the job and just allow your body to do what it was trained to do.
What would you advise a young person who aspires to follow your footsteps and then relate your career? What advice would you give to them?
It’s funny, because we have a young diver Jordan Windell. When he was eight years old, one night I was having dinner with his dad. His dad and I became friends and I feel like I’m a part of the family. I remember he was drawing and I didn’t think he was paying much attention. And then he turns to me and said, Mr. Wiggins, what do you do when people talk smack about you? And I’m going to talk smack about you. I had to ask his father what that meant. And so he explains I got to talking bad about you. Oh, okay. I turned him and I told him, if somebody’s talking smack about me, then I’m flattered. Because they think of me as a threat. And I don’t feel I’m all that much of a threat. But I’m flattered that they think of me that way.
The other little piece of advice that I gave him is no matter what you do have fun doing it.
You’re, by all accounts, a very successful person, how do you use your success to bring goodness to the world?
I’ve gotten this, this label as an activist. I really don’t see myself as an activist, but I speak my truth. And I think that my truth often stands up for and is a voice for some people who might feel marginalized or unheard. Whether it’s the LGBTQIA, the HIV community, that’s just a part of who I am. When I show up, I show up fully. There’s nothing I’m trying to hide. I represent all of those aspects.
And I have a passion for dogs.
You are a person of enormous influence, if you could inspire a movement that brings the most amount of good, the most amount of people? What would that be, you never know, what your idea can trigger?
The course that I have “Meditation in motion”. Just spreading love and kindness. I think that is huge.
Also the kids that I work with, I challenged them and said, do a random act of kindness every day. Because initially I look at what I did but I tell them. If it’s a random act of kindness, you can’t get recognition for it, right? Because then it nullifies it, and you have to start over again. So you can’t get recognition. Because then if that becomes a habit, it’s just you, you don’t think about it.
It’s funny, because I was in the complex where I live, and I’m taking my dogs out for a walk. And of course, I have poop bags and I’m picking up after my dogs, but there are a couple of neighbors and his young daughter I saw somebody pick up, and it wasn’t my dog, and I was picking up and my neighbor said, Oh, that’s great. You’re such a good responsible dog owner picking up after your dog and I said, it wasn’t my dog. And I didn’t think about it at all. And a day or two later, he came to my door and said, my daughter wanted to bake you cookies and she wanted me to give you because she was so impressed that you’re picking up other people’s.
You just never know who it’s gonna effect by doing some random act of kindness. It can be to Mother Earth or it can be to another individual.
Unfortunately, we’re wearing masks now. But it’s somebody’s smile. And, I’m telling you that there have been times when I’ve been feeling really, really low. And then I go to the grocery store, and then somebody smiles at me and says, hello stranger. Oh my god, that made me feel so much better. I mean, it made my day. So you never know where those people are and what their stories are.
Can you share your favorite life lesson, quote? What does that resonate? Why does it resonate with you so much?
My favorite life lesson quote. That is one of the things that I can tell the people that I work with, especially the athletes that I’ve worked with.
“If you’re reaching for the stars, and you don’t go through some clouds and turbulence, then you’re not reaching higher enough.”
We’re very blessed with some of the biggest names in business, VC funding sports and entertainment and read this column. Is there a person in the world or in the US with whom you’d love to have a private breakfast or lunch with and why he or she might just see this?
Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretsky. I’d also love to meet Baryshnikov. People lumped me together with those guys. I would love to just sit down and talk about philosophy of what they went through, how they managed things and the way they thought of things. When I was in Rio a bunch of Olympians were there and we were having dinner with some sponsors and I had the opportunity to sit with Peter Venmar and Michael Johnson.
Michael Johnson said he was definitely a competitor. He said, he wanted the fastest guy next to him and he wanted to kick his ass.
I always remember ESPN interviewed us after the Olympic Games in 84. Athlete Evelyn Ashford did an interview and she talked about her race and how they wanted us to talk through our competitions. She talked through the race and that she got to the block, she set her feet and she heard the gun. She then got out of the gates really fast. Then she could feel the wind, she could hear the breeze. And it felt like nothing. I can relate to that. When I was at the 84 Olympic Games; and this is the reason why I gave my gold medal from the 84 men’s platform. I gave that medal to my coach Ron O’Brian because it was such a magical time and space and I felt like I was dancing. I think at one point he turned to me and he said, just keep dancing. And it was such beautiful choreography. The competition on the men’s 10 meter platform was so incredible. Because I was aware of where my mother was sitting and was well aware of where my dad was sitting I had a broad awareness of a lot of the competitions that I competed in. In the competitions it was such a narrow focus and there was nobody that existed on the planet except my coach and myself. And all I could see is the diving board and the water everywhere else was a blur. At the 84 Olympic Games I remember the lady in the fifth row three seats up in a flowered hat. It was so clear and then Mayor Tom Bradley came in late. I think it was because we were on our second round of dives. And I said, Hey, Tom, you’re late. “Yeah, I’m trying to find my seat”. It was just so playful and joyful.