SEOUL, South Korea — He was the Olympian who went bump in the night.
“Did you see that?” someone whispered.
“Did you see that?” someone shrieked.
Did you see that? Greg Louganis was coming out of his ninth preliminary dive in the springboard competition, yet another combination of twists and somersaults and amazing acrobatics, and suddenly, on his way to the water, he hit his head on the board and entered with a plop. Did you see that? Did you see that? All around the pool, all around the Olympic Village, all around Seoul and in living rooms all around the world, eyes blinked and the reaction was the same.
“He’s hurt!” someone yelled.
“He’s dead!” someone yelled.
But he was not dead. He was not really hurt. He was Greg Louganis and he came out of the water as Greg Louganis always seems to come out of the water: easily and silky-smooth, and the doctors checked the blood on the back of his head and he disappeared and 20 minutes later he came out with four stitches in his scalp.
“You got it, Lugo!” screamed a group of American fans. He smiled and nodded and when he stood on the board he patted his heart, pit-a-pat, pit-a-pat, as if he were nervous, and then he did something called “reverse 1 1/2 somersault with 3 1/2 twist” and he nailed it so flawlessly that it was the highest scoring dive of the preliminaries.
And in the finals, he won the gold medal.
How badly were you hurt?” someone asked Louganis, after he’d beaten China’s Tan Liangde and Li Deliang for the Olympic springboard gold.
“I think my pride was hurt more than anything physical,” he said, “When I hit the board, I was shocked. I’d done that once before, in 1979 in Russia. It was on the platform. I was knocked unconscious for like, 20 minutes.”
“Needless to say, I didn’t finish that competition.”
But he finished this one — beautifully, without a ripple. He has reached such heights that even the board can’t hurt him. Did you see him on TV during these finals — diving with that little patch of bare scalp where they had shaved him for stitches?
“When they played ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ and it came to ‘home of the brave,’ ” said his coach, Ron O’Brien, after the medal ceremony, “I thought, well, that part was written for him today.”
That part. The other parts. Give him the whole song. What more can he prove? His story is long and familiar and what he has done in his sport requires at least 30 pages, but it can be summed up best by this fact: wherever you go in America, if you say “diving” there is one name and one name only that people recognize. And these are people who prefer a belly flop with a beer can.
Here is a bio that makes you wet-kiss the American Dream: a child born to teenagers, a Samoan boy and a Swedish girl, who gave him to a foster home as a baby. Adopted by a tuna fleet operator in San Diego, he grew up shy and awkward, with a speech problem and a learning disability. He was an outcast in school. The other children mocked his dark skin, and like most lonely kids he searched for something in which to excel. When he discovered diving he was home forever.
He captured every kind of title. Every kind of medal. At 28, he has so many championships it’s hard to count them. And he’s starting to add up in Olympic souvenirs. Tuesday’s was his third gold, and he’ll try for another in the platform. Here, ladies and gents, is the King of Diving.
With a bump on his head.
Which was OK. It really was. As long as he wasn’t hurt. To be honest, it sort of humanized him. Greg Louganis does this so easily you can almost forget how tough diving really is. And how dangerous. Nobody knows better than Louganis. Four years after his own mishap in Russia, he was at the World University Games in Edmonton, just a few feet away, when his friend and fellow diver Sergei Chalibashvili hit his head on the platform and fell grotesquely into a suddenly bloody pool. He died within a week.
And one year later Louganis tried that same “Dive of Death” as his final platform effort in the 1984 Olympics.
And there is perhaps the greatest tribute to Louganis. The success doesn’t spoil him, and the falls do not disturb him. During the finals, when he came to the ninth dive — the same dive that had injured him hours earlier
— the crowd rose to its feet and held its breath. Louganis, as usual, slapped his face a couple times (don’t ask me why), marched to the end of the board, and bounded off into mid-air — cleanly, neatly, and safely. He hit the water with barely a splash, and disappeared in deep blue quiet as the crowd exploded in applause.
“I knew everybody would be watching that dive,” he said, smiling. “I just told myself, ‘You’ve done this many times before. It was harder this time than in 1979 because back then I was knocked out; I didn’t remember any pain. Here I remembered the pain. I said to myself just do it like you always do.”
He did it.
And we saw it. We saw him flip and twist and tumble and spin. We saw him forward and backward and upside down. We saw him glide like an airplane, and point head-first into the water like God’s arrow. Dive after dive. And finally, when it was over, we saw him standing where he belongs, on the podium with the little No. 1 in front of it, his hair still wet, his face the picture of relief and joy.
Golden again. The Olympian who went bump in the night. As far as diving is concerned, these may always be the Olympics in which “Louganis banged his head.” So be it. Did you see that? What a perfect picture: gold around his neck and a fleshy crown atop his head. How very fitting for a king. CUTLINES
U.S. diver Greg Louganis is helped from the pool Monday after hitting his head on the springboard during preliminary competition.
U.S. diver Greg Louganis takes his first dive in today’s springboard diving finals after hitting his head on a springboard during Monday’s preliminary rounds.
Louganis, left, talks with West German diver Albin Killiat before today’s diving finals. Doctors used stitches to close the wound on Louganis’ head.