In August of this year, HBO aired a new documentary film on legendary Olympic diver Greg Louganis. I don’t keep an active subscription to HBO; but when I read about the film, I knew that I, of all people, needed to watch it. So I contacted my cable provider and subscribed to the premium channel; and on a weekend evening, my husband and I sat down to watch “Back on Board.”
It was Louganis’ return to diving a few years ago which caught the attention of producer Will Sweeney, who read a news article about Louganis’ new role as mentor to the 2012 US Olympic Diving Team. In an interview with the film’s director, Cheryl Furjanic told me about the series of events which led to the making of the film: “[Will] wondered why the best diver ever was away from his sport. He thought that there must be a story there. Where has he been, why was he away, and why is he back?”
It’s a question that more of us should have asked, but didn’t. There is no name more synonymous with diving and Olympic diving than Greg Louganis. That he virtually disappeared from his sport after retiring in 1988 should, perhaps, have been questioned sooner than it was. When they began working on the film, Sweeney and Furjanic came across numerous people born after 1988 who had never even heard of Louganis! “We were stunned,” Furjanic commented. “This was surprising to us but it also made some sense–Greg really hadn’t been talked about much in their lifetimes.”
I for one hadn’t questioned his disappearance. Instead, I assumed he’d moved on to a new chapter in his life, choosing to leave behind diving for new adventures and achievements. After all, it’s not uncommon for Olympians to seek something different in life following years of incessant training and competition. It is, however, less common for athletes of Louganis’ talent and accomplishments to be no longer connected to their sport. What most of us don’t know is that aside from the numerous medals and awards, Louganis’ life has been complicated, riddled with emotional turmoil: bullying, rejection, struggle with sexual identity, financial woes, and a diagnosis of HIV. Feeling unworthy and at times unloved, the young Louganis found solace in the somewhat isolating sport of diving, and his natural talent was quickly recognized by elite coaches who took his raw talent and molded him into the greatest diver the world has ever seen. Yet the sport in which he excelled would also be a source of heartache. He was discriminated against and rebuffed by those within the diving community due to jealousy, homophobia, and other irrational agendas, both during and after his years as a competitive diver.
Early in the film, Louganis repeats the question asked to him by an interviewer. “Who is Greg Louganis?” he asks. With a somewhat strained smile, Louganis replies, “I don’t know.”
There is no easy answer to the question. Using no narration other than those being interviewed (including Louganis), we see for the first time other parts of his personality, particularly his extreme vulnerability and sensitivity. Many of his personal struggles unfold in front of the camera, allowing the viewers to be a part of his journey of self-discovery—or as Furjanic says, “finding his way—and his footing—again after being a bit adrift.”
There are various themes in the film: the longing for a home, for security, for love; the pain of rejection; and the struggle to navigate one’s way through life….I could go on and on. The title “Back on Board” applies to many aspects of Louganis’ life, to name a few. The title, “Back on Board” not only suggests Louganis’ return to diving; it also shows the man’s incredible resiliency. As Furjanic says, “We…were confident that Greg’s story of resilience was so moving that our film could convey his life story while inspiring audiences at the same time.”
“Back on Board” is an invaluable record of Louganis’ competitive years. It’s not that I totally forgot about Louganis after he retired from diving; but as time wore on, the appreciation for his talent and skill began to fade from memory. Watching “Back on Board” brought him back to mind. Furjanic and her team, using footage of his diving (much of it in slow motion), accompanied by music from composer Tom Rutishauser and Aaron Copeland’s “Appalachian Spring,” remind us of Louganis’ unparalleled talent and skill. For me, it was a stark reminder of how ethereal and otherworldly Greg Louganis was. I’ll admit that I found myself tearing up a bit, the hair on my arms bristling, and I said to my husband, “There will never be another like him.”
As a young girl watching Greg Louganis in the Olympics, I was entertained and enthralled by his skill and accomplishments. Now as an adult, watching these dives again evoked different feelings: awe and reverence of that kind of natural talent, that kind of skill,, and I realized how lucky I was to have grown up watching him dive.
During the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, we’ll watch the diving and other athletes compete in their respective sports. And there will, no doubt, be inspiring stories of athletes who have triumphed over injury and other obstacles. “Back on Board” offers us a similar yet different story of triumph—one that occurred after the Olympian left athletic competition and worked tirelessly to pull himself up, collect the fragments of his life, and start anew.
If you will pardon the pun, there are more themes I’d love to dive into, but to do so would detract the reader from the experience of watching this beautiful documentary and coming to one’s own conclusions as to who Greg Louganis is. “Back on Board” is a gift—a gift of extraordinary cinematography and sport history. The manner in which Furjanic tells Louganis’ story is both heart-wrenching and inspiring. I recommend it with enthusiasm.
(“Back on Board” first aired August 4 on HBO. It is still available for viewing using HBO On-Demand or HBO GO and will be available for purchase in September.)