New Film Examines Struggles of Olympic Legend Louganis

New Film Examines Struggles of Olympic Legend Louganis





Louganis shows off his springboard gold at the Seoul Olympics. (Getty Images)
(ATR) A new documentary delves into the triumphs and troubles of four-time Olympic diving gold medalist Greg Louganis.

“Back on Board” premiered Friday at the AFI Docs Film Festival in Washington. The 86-minute film follows Louganis from 2011 to 2013 as he reconnects with a sport that made him feel unwelcome, he says, due to “jealousy or homophobia.”

After nearly 20 years with little involvement in diving, Louganis becomes a mentor for the U.S. team before and during the 2012 London Olympics. 

He is also seen struggling to stay afloat financially. As the documentary begins, Louganis fears he will lose his Malibu house to foreclosure.

“Greg won four gold medals (in 1984 and 1988), but he never got the endorsements and the level of financial stability that would come with that because he was gay,” producer Will Sweeney tells  Around the Rings. “It’s kind of like a comeback story for Greg in diving, and it’s also a symbol of progress. We have come a long way. If Greg was coming out now, I think people would endorse him and wouldn’t even hesitate about it.”

Sweeney says he was inspired to make the film when he read that Louganis had begun coaching young athletes in Southern California. 

“How is it possible that someone people perceive to be the greatest diver of all time had nothing to do with the sport for 20 years?” he says. 

Sweeney and director Cheryl Furjanic use never-before-seen archival footage and home movies as well as clips from ABC, NBC, PBS and Olympic filmmaker Bud Greenspan. 

One of the Best Ever

With grace and precision, Louganis made diving look effortless. He won a silver medal at age 16 in Montreal, then became the first male diver to achieve a double-double in 1984 and 1988.
Louganis famously struck his head on the diving board at the 1988 Olympics. (Getty Images)
Even 26 years later, the footage of Louganis hitting his head on the springboard in Seoul – including the loud thump – is still jarring. He talks about the anguish he felt in keeping his secret that he was HIV-positive as a doctor stitched him up.

The film also weaves in news reports about AIDS and its impact on the gay community. Louganis became a champion for gay rights after his diving career.

“One of the interesting things about Greg’s life is how many times his personal life intersects with big social and political dynamics,” Sweeney says, citing the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Olympics in 1980, the AIDS epidemic, and the wave of home foreclosures.

“He had some really incredible victories, but he’s also had some real challenges in his life and missed opportunities, and that’s what makes him who he is. He’s also very resilient. He’s never really given up, and he’s forged ahead and tried to reinvent himself, and I think that’s what makes him so compelling.”

And, Sweeney adds, “He’s such a nice guy.”

Louganis speaks openly about his toxic relationship with Jim Babbitt, who died of AIDS in 1990, and his struggle to meet someone he could love and trust. During the course of filming, Louganis met – and married – Johnny Chaillot.

“Cheryl developed a really strong relationship with Greg where he felt comfortable enough to really be honest and reveal all of his vulnerabilities,” Sweeney says. “I think that’s what makes the movie really powerful.”

Making the Film Festival Rounds

The documentary will be screened at the Frameline Film Festival in San Francisco on June 25 and at the Outfest Los Angeles LGBT Film Festival on July 19.

Sweeney hopes the film will be picked up by a U.S. network such as ESPN, HBO or PBS.
Louganis (right) with husband Johnny Chaillot (Getty Images)
Although the initial cost for production was about $500,000, the film’s distribution will determine how much in additional license fees must be paid to the USOC and IOC for use of their footage. 

“The USOC and the IOC have been very helpful and are working with us to make it affordable,” Sweeney says.

He and Furjanic are independent filmmakers who raised the money through donations to the Center for Independent Documentary. They don’t expect to make a profit.

“Cheryl teaches at NYU [and] I run a film services company, so we’re doing this as a labor of love,” Sweeney says. “If we make money on this film, it’ll be shocking.”

Although Louganis will not earn any proceeds from the film, he is attending the screenings and promoting the documentary.

“He loves the film,” Sweeney says. “Obviously, he’s invested in helping us make sure that a lot of people see the film and really understand him as a person. The more that people know about him and his story and his legacy, the more they will want to hire him for personal appearances.”

Louganis also wants to help current athletes make a smoother transition from sports to the rest of their lives. 

“I’d love them to not make some of the decisions I’ve made,” he says in the film, “save them some of that heartache.” 

Written by  Karen Rosen

Homepage photo: Getty Images

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