77: Louganis gashes head on board, wins gold

The reverse 3½ somersault in the tuck position is the "Dive of Death" -- the most difficult platform dive. Every diver who has comtemplated it knows the danger, the fear, the horrific visions of disaster as they stand atop the world, anticipating tumbling down at a speed of 65-70 mph.

No one knew it better than Greg Louganis. He was on the steps of the tower during the 1983 World University Games when Soviet diver Sergei Chalibashvili was about to attempt the reverse 3½. Louganis stood there, refusing to watch. He actually looked the other way. He was holding his hands over his ears, fearing Chalibashvili might not be able to clear the tower on the dive, and that he would hear the dreadful sound of head meeting concrete.

Louganis' fears were realized, as Chalibashvili's head struck and shook the platform. His body tumbled through the air, head over feet, uncontrollably, and he crashed in the water. Blood quickly filled the pool. Doctors and medical personnel rushed to the scene. It didn't matter. Chalibashvili was gone.

Moments later, there stood Louganis, in the very same spot where Chalibashvili had stood, having to continue the competition, having to dive into bloody water with the same reverse 3½.

Louganis often had nightmares of the time he had slammed into the platform during a competition in the Soviet Union in 1979. He was unconscious when he hit the water. He had to be pulled out of the pool and was out for 20 minutes. "It's always there in the back of your mind, but you have to be brave, confident," he has told the media. "You have block it out."

It's the 1988 Summer Olympic Games in Seoul, September 19, Day 4 of the 3-meter springboard competition, the preliminary round that determines which divers move to the medal round.

Louganis is leading the 11-dive preliminary springboard event as he steps up for his ninth dive. He walks to the end of the springboard. The crowd is silent. Louganis stands straight up, perhaps a little too straight. He then bends and whips himself off the board and flies into the air.

As he hangs in the air, high above the crowd, twisting and turning, he realizes he should have pushed away a little more, just to give himself a little more distance from the board. As he begins to descend, he realizes he is over the board, not far enough away from it. The crowd sees how close he is. They anticipate trouble. They cringe. So does Louganis' coach, Ron O'Brien.

As Louganis spins downward, the back of his head slams against the board. The shock is felt throughout the crowd. As Louganis tumbles toward the water, helplessly, the crowd hopes and prays. Louganis crashes into the water, awkwardly. People in the crowd hold their hands over their faces, aghast. Medical personnel quickly surround the pool, prepared for the worst.

Suddenly, Louganis emerges to the surface, stunned and dazed, but conscious. He is helped out of the pool. Dr. James Puffer of UCLA, the U.S. Olympic Committee physician, examines Louganis' head. Louganis pushes him away. "Just stitch it up," he tells the doctor. "I've got two more dives."

Puffer puts four temporary stitches in the top of Louganis' head. The 9th-round scrape drops Louganis from first place to fifth place. Thirty minutes pass until his next dive; it's the one that will determine whether he advances to the medal round.

He emerges for his dive to the delight of a crowd screaming, "USA! USA!" A diver of precision, Louganis completes a startling reverse 1½ somersault with 3½ twists -- his best dive of the day. Despite a 3.3 degree of difficulty, Louganis makes it look easy.

In the final round, amidst the roar of the crowd, Louganis completes his dive, securing his place in the medal round the following day with 12 other divers in a field that started with 35 competitors.

Shortly after his last dive, Louganis is taken to a local hospital to get five stitches to last through the rest of the Games -- he hopes. His sights are now set on the gold medal, which he won at the previous Olympics, in 1984, in Los Angeles. He is determined to become the first diver to win both the springboard and platform competition in back-to-back Olympics.

The following morning, Louganis appears for the medal round with two shaved spots on his head where he had hit the end of the board. He is nervous. He is unable to erase from his mind the previous day's horror. The challenge, he says, is psychological.

"When I hit the board, it shook my confidence," he admits to the press. He has more jitters than he can ever recall. He knows he has to be sure to get his hands over his head; if he doesn't break the water with his hands, he knows he can bust open the stitches and damage his head further.

He goes out for the gold medal round knowing he has to do three takeoffs exactly the same as the same one he hit the board on. "Try that and you'll find out how mentally tough you are," his coach, O'Brien, would later say.

On his second dive, Louganis successfully completes a reverse, but the question is how he will handle his ninth dive -- the same one that resulted in his head injury. Dive No. 9 arrives. He contemplates his move, standing at the end of the board. He takes two deep breaths. He then takes an extra moment to concentrate, to focus, to obliterate any fear from his mind. He knows the world is watching, waiting. He tells himself, "You've done this before. You will do it again."

He jumps ... he twists in the air ... he turns. His motion is perfect. The crowd roars. He flies through the air and heads downward and lands perfectly in the pool, with virtually no splash. He emerges from the water grinning. The scores are posted: they all range from 8.0 to 9.0.

Louganis does not falter once in the 11-dive program. He totals 730.80 points to win the gold, and China's Tan Liangde, the diver who finished second to Louganis in the 1984 Olympic Games, takes the silver with 704.88 points.

As Louganis stands atop the awards stand, the Olympic gold medal for men's springboard diving around his neck, he listens as "The Star-Spangled Banner" reverberates through the Chamshil Indoor Swimming Pool. He relishes the moment, his conquest over pain and pressure complete.