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DIVING INTO LIFE : After Having ‘a Single Obsession,’ Greg Louganis Decides There’s No Need to Be Grim All the Time

Times Staff Writer

Transformations are an American obsession.

In all facets of life, from children’s TV to automobiles to high fashion, there is a fascination with makeovers that enhance, embolden and enlarge. Most of the changes, of course, are aimed at the basics: power, sex appeal and income.

Olympic diving champion Greg Louganis has something else in mind. Already blessed with a powerful physique and success, Louganis merely wants to become more relaxed.

The title of his autobiography, “A Single Obsession,” supplies a hint as to why Louganis is trying to modify his approach to life.

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Louganis is not disenchanted with diving--the 1988 Olympics are in the back of his mind--but he is eager to branch out, to become more well-rounded and at peace.

“I’m learning to laugh at myself,” Louganis said.

Proof was strapped to his wrist. Where another accomplished athlete might flaunt an expensive gold timepiece, Louganis wore a Mickey Mouse watch.

Further proof was his presence at La Costa last week. He was a participant in a celebrity tennis tournament that offered no prize money. Never mind that he had never picked up a tennis racket before, the point of this exercise was to have fun.

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Louganis freely admits he hasn’t purged himself of ambition. In fact, he’s a budding actor who fancies he will one day be as accomplished on stage as he is now on the diving board. He may eventually get to Broadway or to a starring role in a daytime soap, but this time, he’s going to have a little fun along the way.

“I don’t think I’ve ever failed at anything,” Louganis said, blithely ignoring that he had reminded no one of John McEnroe in the previous 90 minutes.

He had just changed out of tennis togs into something more comfortable--a bathing suit--and he seemed almost eager to talk about the new Greg Louganis.

“I’ve made my share of mistakes, but I have learned a hell of a lot about life,” he said.

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“In the last two years, I’ve grown by leaps and bounds as far as becoming a more sociable human being. I’m still a little uncomfortable in some situations, but I have forced myself to become a more outgoing person. I just realized it was in my own best interest to do that.”

Actually, he had some help in acquiring this insight.

A couple of friends hounded him relentlessly to crack his facade of seriousness. They would show him photographs of a grim-looking diver, and they would mimic his stern expression, almost to the point of cruelty.

At first, he got angry. Then, he got the point.

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“Really, I looked absurd,” Louganis said.

“My friends were laughing at me, but that’s what it took to get me to change.

“Lately, I’ve been surprising a lot of people, including myself, because I’m more free,” he said. “I’m not as keyed up as I used to be. And it comes from the persistence of friends who made me inject a little humor into all I did.”

Besides feeling more at ease with outsiders, Louganis also feels more secure within himself.

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From childhood to early adulthood, he was sure only of his ability to dive. In school, he was miserable because he suffered from dyslexia, a reading disorder. Classmates taunted him, the fate of all children who are different or unable to keep up with their peers.

“I didn’t have the social outlets,” he said.

Even diving worked against him in a sense: He was outside the athletic mainstream populated by football and basketball stars.

“I’ve wondered how my life might have turned out if it hadn’t been for diving,” Louganis said. “There are so many ways a child can turn. So many dyslexic kids wind up in juvenile halls. They don’t fit in.

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“So much importance is placed on academics. Kids are pushed to be professionals, doctors and lawyers. But some can’t. I was called lazy and other things, and I never even knew I was dyslexic until I got to college.”

This was a topic that distressed him, so Louganis preferred to talk about something else--his book, for example.

He hopes to have it finished by late fall. It’s more than his life story, Louganis said. The book is intended to help kids who have an obsession, telling them to weigh the pros and cons of their behavior.

“I wouldn’t trade my life for anything,” Louganis said. “I know it was obsessive, but it’s never too late to learn. There is always a choice, and diving was my choice.”

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Along with the positive growth curve of the last few years, Louganis has made an unpleasant discovery or two. For instance, there isn’t a great demand for his picture on a cereal box or in the driver’s seat of a rental car.

He is shopping for a company or a product to endorse, and he is being as picky as potential advertisers.

“I want to be loyal to one association,” Louganis said. “If you do too many products, you dilute your value. You learn a sense of loyalty in athletics, and I want that to carry over into the rest of my life. I don’t have too many friends, but the ones I have are really special.”

Louganis is also preparing himself for his next career.

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“I love being in front of a camera,” he said. “It’s more private and intimate than other forms of acting.”

There is one area that he hasn’t mastered. According to Louganis, he doesn’t come across larger than life, which is an essential quality for an actor trying to reach the ticket-holder seated in the last row of the theater.

It has never been a failing in the realm of diving, however.

If anything, Louganis has brought a presence to his sport that goes beyond anything ever seen in diving.

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Louganis won’t make any decisions on his future until after the 1986 world championships.

“If I do well, I will continue diving,” he said. “If not, I may retire. I can’t maintain a peak level for umpteen years. I’ve been there since 1976, and I don’t want to burn out. I want to enjoy diving and not let it rule me.

“I’m not going to commit myself right now. I would like to go to Seoul (for the Olympics in 1988), but that isn’t to say my mind is made up. I know this much: I wouldn’t have any regrets if I finished second or third at Seoul. I would just see that as confirmation it was time to retire.”

Only then will it be possible for him to take a running start, belly-flop into the pool and laugh about it. Only then will the transformation be complete.

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