'The Truth Shall Set You Free' : Since telling the world that he has AIDS and detailing his dark childhood, Greg Louganis has heard all the criticism. How is the Olympic gold medalist enduring the maelstrom?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Greg Louganis says he has "no more secrets" and is prepared to deal with the criticism he expects after his stun ning disclosure last week that he has AIDS.

"I don't fear criticism. It's gonna come," Louganis said Monday from New York City, where he began a 13-city tour to promote his autobiography, "Breaking the Silence" (Random House, 1995).

In the book, written with Eric Marcus, Louganis discusses AIDS, abusive relationships and his childhood problems, which included dyslexia, racism, an abusive adoptive father, depression and three suicide attempts.

Louganis, 35, who won a total of four gold medals for springboard and platform diving at the Olympics in 1984 and 1988 and is regarded by many as the greatest ever at his sport, disclosed in an interview on ABC's "20/20" that he has AIDS.

Since then, he has been criticized by some columnists, talk-radio callers and others who believe he acted irresponsibly by not revealing that he was HIV-positive after he hit his head during a dive at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and bled into the pool. He allowed a U.S. Olympic Committee doctor, who was unaware of Louganis' condition and did not wear protective gloves, to close the two-inch gash with five stitches.

"I have heard some (negative) comments," he said. "I hope those people are arming themselves with the facts from reputable people who know."

Why didn't he tell the doctor? "It was irresponsible for me not to," he said in the book. In the interview, he responded, "Have you ever been in the Olympics?

"Imagine the most intense, pressure-filled, stressful situation you've ever been in, multiply that by 10 and being under such scrutiny. Add to it an athletic event with the adrenaline flowing. It's overwhelming. It's overwhelming even if everything goes right," Louganis said.

In his book, he said a top AIDS expert told him that the risk of anyone being infected during this incident was extremely small.

He said it was a struggle for him to conceal his medical condition, a secret known only to two people besides himself-- his lover at the time and his coach, Ron O'Brien--while trying to perform his best at the Olympic Games.

After hitting his head, disclosing that he was HIV-positive could have thrown the competition into a state of alarm, he reasoned.

(AIDS experts have told The Times that it was unlikely Louganis could have transmitted the human immunodeficiency virus to anyone when he bled into the pool because of the dilution of the virus in the water, combined with the effectiveness of chlorine in inactivating the virus.)

"It was easier to focus on diving because it was something that I was trained to do, something that I did most of my life," he said.

His concern, he said, was for the team doctor, Jim Puffer, whom he told about his condition six years later.

"He was the one who was most at risk. The risk was very minute, and other experts are saying that there was no risk," Louganis said. He added that since that incident, Puffer has "taken the proper precautions" and has tested negative for HIV. Louganis said he hopes that people will "take their cues" from Puffer and the U.S. Olympic Committee.

"The debates can continue and hopefully there has been a lot of education (since his admission) about how the virus is transmitted," Louganis said. "I welcome debates, because with debates there is education happening."

The winner of 47 national titles, five world championships and five Olympic diving medals--winning consecutive double gold medals in 1984 and 1988, an unprecedented achievement--said reaction from people on the street since news broke about his condition "has been incredibly positive. I mean on the streets in New York, people are asking, 'Are you OK? Are you really OK?' "

His answer?

"I'm doing great. I'm realizing that everybody has a story, and strangers are sharing their stories with me for something that they've related to in mine. I'm making that connection."

He said he decided to open up about his condition and tell his story now simply because he was ready.

"The truth shall set you free," he said. "That's the running theme" in his book, and the messages he wants to share with his fans and readers "are pretty strong."

"One of the most important messages is in regard to my relationship with my (adoptive) dad. I love that portion of the book because it's about my reconciliation and our battle together," he said. In 1989, Louganis told his adoptive father, who was battling lung cancer, about his condition. Louganis took care of him during the last six months of his life.

"It's never too late" to make peace with an estranged loved one, he said. "I'm just very thankful that I had that time.

"The other message is that it's never too late to start over," he said, referring to an "extremely abusive relationship" he began in 1982 with the man he calls "Tom." Louganis stayed with Tom until 1989, letting him move into his Malibu house and allowing him to handle his financial affairs. Tom died of AIDS in 1990.

"There were so many things going on, self-esteem issues. I felt that I deserved it," he said about the abuse that included being raped by Tom with a knife at his throat. "But nobody deserves that." In retrospect, Louganis said, "it was totally absurd" for him to feel he deserved that kind of treatment.

"I'm not in a relationship now," he said. "But I think that I am in a stronger place now to be aware and have my eyes open going into a relationship, and also having more self-respect and the understanding that I do deserve to be treated well. Nobody deserves to be treated, in some instances, like I was treated."

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Louganis writes about a "lifetime of fear and pain and always feeling that the next dive would make it all right."

During his adolescence especially, Louganis said, that fear led to sadness, which led to three suicide attempts.

"I was so sad it hurt," he said. "Some of my sadness had to do with my adoption," he said, of which he had "some real negative views."

"I didn't think of that image of being dropped on a doorstep. I thought that I wasn't wanted, that my natural parents didn't love me and if they didn't love me, nobody could love me."

But later, he said, "I found out differently that my natural parents did love me. They cared enough to give me a chance" by putting him up for adoption shortly after he was born in 1960. Born of Samoan and northern European ancestry, his biological parents were 15 at the time he was adopted by Peter and Frances Louganis. He was reared in a middle-class neighborhood in El Cajon, a suburb San Diego.

Louganis said he believes he met his biological father in 1985. "A gentleman approached me in Hawaii and said he was my natural father. He probably is. He's never asked for anything. I get Christmas cards from the family."

His adoptive father was abusive and a drinker, which he writes about in the book. His adoptive mother has been his greatest supporter, "a rock," he said.

As a youngster, gymnastics, dance and diving became his salvation. They were his escape from "growing up dyslexic and not understanding what dyslexia is."

"I grew up thinking I was stupid and retarded--that's what the kids said about me. So diving was the one thing that I could do and do well. It was an area of success and it became my entire self-esteem."

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These days, with the help from a therapist, Louganis continues to work on his self-esteem and other issues, including eating well and working out at the gym.

"My health is stable. I haven't been on AZT all these years. I feel great."

He said that as he begins his book tour and faces the media for questions that will come up over and over, he is getting his strength from close friends and his mother.

"I keep checking in on her too. I worry about her. . . . I don't think she knew what she was getting into when she adopted me," he said, laughing.

"My mother taught me about unconditional love. I'm thankful that I have that to carry with me. That's the reason why my dogs have been so important to me"

And being a volunteer and spokesman for PAWS LA (Pets are wonderful Support), an AIDS organization that cares for pets of people who are HIV-positive or have full-pblown AIDS.

"I would never put myself up to be a role model," Louganis said. "I'm very uncomfortable with that. Who can live up to those standards? I don't know anyone who could. I'm just trying to be the best person I can be."

And that includes "life after an HIV diagnosis," he said. "I think I'll always fear getting sick and becoming dependent. But I don't fear death. . . . There is plenty of living to do."

For the Record Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 1, 1995 Home Edition Life & Style Part E Page 5 View Desk 1 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction Book Title--In some editions of Tuesday's Life & Style, the title of Greg Louganis' autobiography was incorrect. It is "Breaking the Surface."
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