Louganis’ Dive Into Alcohol, Drugs : Olympic Champion Admits to Substance Abuse in School Years
Two-time Olympic gold medalist Greg Louganis, generally recognized as the world’s greatest diver, admitted Tuesday that he smoked marijuana, experimented with other drugs and drank heavily in high school and college, even to the point of competing and winning a national title the night after getting drunk with friends.
“It’s important that you know this,” Louganis said to an assembly of about 300 Irvine High School students, who were gathered for an hour-long question-and-answer session with Louganis.
“I smoked pot,” he said. “And I did some things stronger than pot.”
Louganis said a great part of his problems with substance abuse involved alcohol.
“Somebody would pop a beer and then I’d pop a beer and before long a case was gone,” he said.
“I was a mess. I did it to escape. I didn’t feel like I fit in when I was in school. I felt like a freak. I’d go through an entire day sometimes and not know what was going on.”
As a youngster, he was often taunted by his schoolmates because of his dyslexia (a reading disorder) his introverted nature and his Samoan heritage.
Louganis said he turned principally to alcohol in his teen-age years “because I didn’t feel good about myself. I was a wimp when I was in school. I was searching desperately for somewhere to fit in.”
Louganis said he considered himself an alcoholic until he stopped drinking entirely in 1983, a year before he became the first man to win Olympic gold medals in the springboard and platform diving events.
“One nationals that I went through in 1978 when I was 18, I missed making the world team on the springboard by three points and I was so disappointed that I went out and got drunk that night with some buddies,” he said.
“I dove the next day (in the platform event). I won, but I’m ashamed of it. I can’t believe I did it. I didn’t even know that day existed. Drinking took away everything good about that day for me.”
Ron O’Brien, who has coached Louganis since the diver was 17, said he was not aware of the Louganis’ drinking problem and didn’t notice anything different in Louganis’ behavior that day in 1978.
Louganis lived with the O’Brien family for several years when O’Brien was coach of the Mission Viejo Nadadores. Louganis, who lives in Malibu, now dives for O’Brien at Mission Bay, Fla., and still stays with him when he is in training.
“I knew that he drank a little and smoked (cigarettes), " O’Brien said, “but I didn’t have any other indication of anything to the extent he talked about (at the assembly).”
O’Brien said he had never seen Louganis drunk, although he knew he occasionally drank.
“Maybe his definition of alcoholic is different than someone else’s,” O’Brien said. “When he was in college, I knew he’d have a few beers or a couple of glasses of wine in a party situation, but he was never indiscreet or exhibited any poor behavior.
“Most kids at the age he’s talking about will try a little of everything. But when he was 17 or 18, God forbid he’d ever smoke a cigarette in front of me. I never saw him smoke until he was in college and that was on a rare occasion.”
When he was 16, Louganis won a silver medal in platform diving at the 1976 Olympics at Montreal. He is a three-time National Collegiate Athletic Assn. champion, a five-time world champion and is the first diver to score perfect 10s in national and international competition and to break the 700-point scoring barrier in the 10-meter platform event.
However, he said, during several of those years he often associated with groups of students who smoked, encouraged him to drink and occasionally supplied him with drugs.
“They didn’t put a gun to my head, though,” he said. “It was definitely my choice.”
Louganis’ statements had an obvious effect on the students, who had gathered for the first in a series of school appearances by Louganis under the sponsorship of Team MacPherson, an organization formed by an Orange County auto dealer to promote drug and alcohol education and other similar youth programs.
The reality of substance abuse in his teen-age years clashed resoundingly with the trim, tan athlete who sat alone at the edge of the school auditorium stage Tuesday, ankles crossed and swaying self-consciously.
The 26-year-old Louganis triggered giggles from many of the girls before the assembly began, but as his talk continued, the auditorium fell silent and questions from the students became more earnest.
Did he ever dive when drunk?
“I went to a workout high one time and wiped out on the springboard,” he said. “I landed flat on my back.”
How did he quit? “It was a gradual progression,” he said. “I didn’t wake up one day and just say, ‘Let’s change.’ It doesn’t work that way. I began to realize that it was taking away my diving from me and to avoid that I had to leave a lot of people behind. I realized that the only thing we had in common was smoking and drinking. A lot of those people probably now think I’m a jerk. But it was a matter of making positive rather than negative choices. I knew I had to do it.”
Louganis, who said he no longer smokes, drinks or takes drugs of any kind, said he began smoking cigarettes at age 8. He said he spent his 13th birthday in juvenile hall, a last resort for his adoptive parents, who had discovered drugs in his closet and who could not control his rebellious behavior. He became suicidal, he said, stung bitterly by the taunts of his schoolmates, who called him retarded because of his dyslexia and made racial comments about his dark complexion.
In high school, when his diving career began to blossom, he was ostracized by some and yet fawned over by “everybody (who) wanted to get next to me, wanted to be my friend,” particularly after his Olympic silver medal-winning performance in 1976. He became suspicious and introverted and said he used alcohol as a means of acceptance into a group.
College changed Louganis, said his friend and personal manager, Jim Babbitt. He stopped using drugs after entering UC Irvine as a drama major. Louganis stopped smoking cigarettes and drinking in 1983, although he admits, “I still think about it.”
Louganis said he would sneak regular cigarettes in the parking lot during breaks in workouts but said he was jolted into giving that up when he saw a 12-year-old boy, a younger member of the local swimming team, also sneaking a smoke.
“I asked him what he was doing and he said, ‘When I grow up I want to be just like you.’ It made me want to quit so I could come back and show him that I wasn’t smoking.”
Louganis also said: “With kids I feel comfortable. I honestly don’t want them to make the same mistakes I did. But you have to be honest. The kids know when you’re talking around them and not giving them a full disclosure. How can you not be honest and still be a role model?”
Said Mark Downie, 15, a sophomore at Irvine High. “He seemed really sincere. I could really understand and relate to him. I’ve been through some of the things he’s been through, and he just seemed like another person, a friend.”