Five years ago, Greg Louganis was electrifying Los Angeles audiences at the Summer Olympics with his diving prowess, winning gold medals in the springboard and platform events. Last year at Seoul, he became the first male diver ever to win both events in two consecutive Olympiads.
This week Louganis is back in the public eye in a vastly different setting: He is making his professional stage debut, playing the Prince in the Long Beach Civic Light Opera’s production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella.” The show, which also stars Alan Young as the King, Pat Carroll as the Fairy Godmother and Juliet Lambert as Cinderella, opens Saturday at the Terrace Theater.
Whether Louganis, 29, can impress local spectators this time around is a question of which he is all too acutely aware. The pressure on opening night will be, he believes, akin to that surrounding his final Olympic dive last year, when he pulled off a near-perfect effort to come from behind after hitting his head on the diving board, to eke out a victory over a Chinese competitor half his age.
“I think this (pressure) will be pretty much the same--it’s going to be terrifying,” he predicted during a rehearsal dinner break.
“I know a lot of people are going to come out and say, ‘Gee, I wonder if he can sing.’ They’re going to be real skeptical. But I can’t be thinking about that on stage, otherwise I might just as well go home.”
Louganis, who holds 47 national and 9 world diving titles, began training for a performing career long before he took up sports. Adopted at 9 months by a couple in El Cajon near San Diego, he started tap-dancing lessons before he was 2, moved on to tumbling, and enrolled in diving classes at 9 at the Parks and Recreation Center in La Mesa.
He won his first Olympic medal--a silver in platform--at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, and two years later enrolled at the University of Miami for its theater program. He subsequently transferred to UC Irvine, graduating in 1983 as a drama major and dance minor, making his professional dance debut with Dance Kaleidoscope in 1987.
“Dancing is more difficult than diving,” he said. “They both deal with balance and timing, but in dance you’re moving in many different planes, angles and directions. In diving you’re going up and going down. You’re doing twists, but the arc of the dive is pretty much the same.”
Diving and theater share certain characteristics, he added. “I like to view diving as a performance. Also, in diving, you’re standing up there alone, with all these eyes focused on you and seven people judging you, and you don’t have a lot on--you’re very vulnerable. As an actor you’re vulnerable too. I think of myself as a dancer-actor-singer, in that order, and in this production of ‘Cinderella,’ the role of the Prince is a singer-actor-dancer, so I’ll be most vulnerable where my singing is concerned.”
Well, can he sing?
With only limited vocal training, and two weeks of intensive work with “Cinderella” music director Steven Smith, Louganis was able to overcome Smith’s initial reservations. “And I’d better have improved since we started rehearsals,” he said with a laugh, “or else I’m sure they would have fired me. It’s been a real learning process.”
He noted that his cast mates have been supportive. (“I know I’m a young actor and I have a lot to learn.”) He also admitted to being somewhat intimidated by his colleagues’ experience: “If I could just get them into a diving pool--then the roles would be reversed!”
Louganis has spent little time in the pool since the Seoul Olympics ended last year. He has done a few exhibitions, made public appearances and fulfilled speaking engagements.
“I can’t see myself coming back (to another Olympics),” he said, and indeed, the day after this interview, he announced his retirement on TV’s “A.M. Los Angeles.” How does he view his Olympic triumphs from today’s perspective?
“I still talk about Seoul--it’s part of the introductory video I use in speaking engagements. It’s 1984 that’s more nostalgic. I recently broke out that videotape and I started to cry, because I was probably at my peak then, and also, that’s a chapter that’s closed.
“Though I am happy, I’m moving on.”
A big adjustment has been learning to take responsibility for his own time, rather than depending on the training schedule set by his coach. “Being in this production is great, because I know again where I’m supposed to be and for how long. The only thing that’s not predictable,” he added, with an obvious lack of enthusiasm, “is how many interviews I have to do.”
The demands of celebrity can be frustrating. “I really want to spend my time in rehearsals and get rested in between, so I’m ready to go each time and I’m not doing anything half-assed. But it comes with the territory, so I have to be accepting of that.”
In his spare time, Louganis works on behalf of the American Cancer Society and AIDS research and support groups, the latter arising, he said, from his friendship with Ryan White, the young Indiana AIDS patient who successfully fought to attend public school.
Not so charitable these days is his relationship with his former manager, James Babbitt. According to reports published last week, Louganis reached an out-of-court settlement of a lawsuit he filed last March, charging that Babbitt had misappropriated funds and threatened physical harm and the revelation of “confidential and private facts.” What facts? Louganis will say only, “No comment.”
As for the future, Louganis plans to continue making the audition rounds for theater, film and television. He has tried out for the Los Angeles company of “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway” and mentions that he would love to try his hand at choreography for ice skaters, citing his admiration for the ability to glide on ice, impossible in other kinds of dance.
“I want to learn and grow and develop,” he said. “My goal is just to be an employed actor.”