'Be your own hero': Olympic diver Greg Louganis tells his coming out story

LGBTQ+ athletes on how they came out to themselves (2:53)

Out sports stars from across the globe detail their experiences of coming out to themselves. (2:53)

Olympic diving legend Greg Louganis [he/him], 61, won four gold medals across back-to-back Olympic Games, in 1984 and 1988. He came out publicly as gay at the Gay Games in 1994, but was out to those around him from an early age.

What was the 'coming out to myself' process like for you?

When you're really young, you don't really know about sex or sexuality or anything like that, I just felt different. I think I knew pretty early on about my sexual identity and then I fought against it because I was being called 'sissy boy' and all this other stuff. That was really challenging as far as self-acceptance [went], because we all just want to fit in. That was [when I was] pretty young -- probably pre-teens. I just knew that I was different.

Did you have a specific reason for coming out to the media/public, rather than keeping your private life private?

It's kind of an interesting journey as far as my coming out [goes] because I was out in my early 20s. I was out to my friends and family, but not to members of the media. Also, people in USA Diving -- they knew about my sexual identity, because the diving team is a really small team and we're travelling internationally. I came out at the Gay Games in 1994, welcoming the athletes and saying, 'It's great to be out and proud.' That was my public coming out. The reason why I came out at that time was that I knew that I was coming out with my book, 'Breaking the Surface,' in 1995, so I knew that I had to start getting comfortable with talking about my sexual identity with interviews. Because I knew that in 1995, a lot was coming out in the book, because I was coming out with my HIV Status, as well as an abusive relationship, depression, and my learning difference. That was a stepping stone into a bigger picture of being able to talk about who I was as a whole person.

READ: 17 LGBTQ+ athletes share their coming out journeys

Did coming out impact your career and opportunities at all?

I'm sure it did interfere with endorsements. There was word back to me that because of my sexual identity [being] questioned, that was why I didn't get a lot of sponsorships and it definitely affected me professionally. Just a few years ago, athletes were getting endorsement because of their sexual identity and because of diversity and that whole mentality, but I was old news, so I got passed over, but I think it's wonderful. I needed to do what I needed to do not only for myself, but also for these other individuals behind me to benefit. I'm just so happy that the times have changed and that they do have these opportunities.

How has your sport changed with regard to the LGBTQ+ community during your career?

During my career, it was challenging, and so too after I retired from my sport. I think a lot of the powers that be in my federation were happy to see me move on and hopefully get a new person, a new face, in the limelight. It really has evolved. Now, there's a whole diversity movement within the sport to being able to talk openly about sexual identity or any bullying or anything that is happening, so there's much more awareness and a lot more sensitivity.

What is the most rewarding, and perhaps unexpected, part of being out?

The most unexpected -- the thing that really struck me -- was when I was at the 2012 Olympics in London and I had an interview with Piers Morgan and he asked me about my HIV and I was just very casual. I said, 'Yeah, I take my meds in the morning, evening, and go about the business of living and that's just a part of my life,' so I talked really casually about that. Then, a few days later -- or it may even have been the next day -- [Australia Olympian] Ji Wallace came forward about his sexual identity and HIV status, saying that I was his inspiration. That's what surprises me. That's what I'm kind of blown away with, because I don't think that anybody is really looking at me. It's surprising the impact that we all have really, being open and honest in who we are and sharing that. It empowers so many individuals to not hide in the shadows, to be embraced, because, really, I think the deadliest thing is to isolate. Letting go of the secrets enables you to feel seen, heard and embraced.

What would your advice be to folks who are struggling with their identity?

There are going to be people who criticise, but chances are that if people are true friends and truly love you, then they're going to embrace you and support you. To have that support is so meaningful and so powerful. Doing it in such an honest way; that's what I think people gravitate towards -- authenticity. It really not only empowers you, but it strengthens relationships. It strengthens those bonds we have with each other that we can share ourselves authentically.

When debating coming out in your mind, what were your worst - and best - case scenarios? And did either come to pass?

My thought before I came out to my mom, that was the scariest thing -- to lose the love and support of your parent. My thought before I came out to my mom was, 'Oh my God, if my parents knew that I was gay, then the earth is going to open up and swallow me whole.' Did that come to pass? No. I was kind of disappointed that my mother wasn't more upset or something -- you know, have some sort of reaction instead of 'what's for dinner?'

It was a little bit more nerve-wracking when I came out in '95, prior to my book, about my HIV status. Being a gay man with HIV, at that time there was still a lot of stigma surrounding HIV. A lot of the attitude in the country and the world was, 'It's killing the right people -- gay men, IV drug users and prostitutes.' And so there was a whole lot of judgement. Because HIV is transmitted sexually, there was a lot of shame surrounding that and a lot of self-loathing and shame and that's a really horrible place to be. I think we're coming around to being more understanding about the virus. It's manageable -- it's not a death sentence anymore, but there's still some stigma, so if you educate yourself, you empower yourself.

Did you ever feel any pressure, either internally or from speculating fans, to be a role model or an ambassador for the queer community? And is that something you embrace now?

That was one thing I was a little concerned about when I came forward with my HIV status -- that I would be the poster boy for HIV. That wasn't something that I wanted, but in a sense I did give it a face and bring awareness to it. I thought that was a good thing. It's not anything that I wanted -- I didn't want that kind of attention -- but I learned that stepping into that can be really powerful and influential. I'm not anything special and I'm no better or worse than anyone else. As long as I can represent myself, that's the best I can do. The one thing when I work with kids -- I encourage them to learn to be their own heroes, because we all have a hero inside of ourselves to be the best of who we are. If we continue to bring that forward, then we will have lived a life to be proud of.