Greg Louganis, the best diver in the world, winner of 26 U.S. titles, three world championships, one Olympic silver medal, four Pan Am golds, and the favorite in both the three-meter springboard and 10-meter platform events at the Los Angeles Games, climbs the ladder to the platform at the Marguerite Recreation Center in Mission Viejo, Calif. He walks to the edge of the metal platform and looks down at the water. It's a habit: Look before you leap; better safe than sorry.
Louganis isn't smiling, probably because it's nearly impossible to combine the intense concentration necessary to execute the reverse 3½ somersault tuck and a smile. For a moment he stands absolutely motionless on the edge of the platform, feet together, arms outstretched to form a T with his body—an eagle poised for flight. And then, in one fluid motion, he swings his arms around and up, leaps high above and away from the platform and forcefully expels his breath as he pulls himself into a tuck position, his legs folded tightly against his chest. The back of Louganis's head turns back toward the tower as he executes the first of the dive's 3½ somersaults, but his head clears the platform by at least two feet, and he tumbles effortlessly down, gracefully unfolds his body halfway through its fourth revolution, inhales sharply and pierces the water like a javelin.
All this takes less than two seconds. Though the dive, No. 307 C in the official rule book, is the toughest one done in competition off the tower, with a 3.4 degree of difficulty, Louganis's Mission Viejo teammate Dave Burgering says, "When Greg does it, he makes it looks so easy that anyone watching him thinks, That doesn't look so hard. I can do that' Other guys can do that dive, but they look like they're struggling. They complete the right number of somersaults, but Greg adds that beauty and grace. And that's not easy."
All week, during practice at the World University Games in Edmonton, Alberta last July, Soviet diver Sergei Shalibashvili had been coming dangerously close to the platform while doing the reverse 3½ tuck. Louganis (pronounced loo-GAIN-us) was in Edmonton to compete, as were teammates Megan Neyer and Wendy Wyland and their Mission Viejo coach, Ron O'Brien, who's also one of the two diving coaches for the U.S. Olympic team. Only Louganis, Shalibashvili and perhaps four other men had ever performed No. 307 C in competition. It was a new dive in the repertoire; the International Technical Diving Committee had approved 307 C along with five other dives as of Sept. 1, 1982. As the day of the men's tower competition drew closer, coaches and divers in Edmonton began turning away, unable to watch Shalibashvili practice 307 C.
"As he started up the ladder to do the dive in competition," says O'Brien, "I went into the trainer's room. I just couldn't watch. Wendy was standing in the doorway, looking out at the pool and I said to her, 'Tell me when he's going to go.' When she said, 'He's going now,' she ran into the room with me, and I closed my eyes and put my fingers in my ears."
There's an expression that American divers use when correcting a teammate in 10-meter practice. If a diver has been jumping out too far from the platform, they'll shout, "Kiss the tower!" which means bring the dive closer in. O'Brien and Wyland feared that Shalibashvili would literally kiss the tower.
Louganis was standing nearby on the seven-meter platform, which is part of the same structure as the 10-meter platform—his back to the water, his eyes closed, his hands over his ears, humming quietly to himself—when Shalibashvili leaped up and pulled into his tuck. But as he was beginning his second somersault, the back of his head struck the edge of the platform, fracturing his skull, and he fell 33 feet to the water below.
About half an hour after the unconscious Shalibashvili was removed from the pool, the competition resumed. A Canadian was up next. Then it was Louganis's turn. "I was going to do a back 3½," he says. "It's not as difficult as 307 C, but it's still pretty tough. In the next round I had to do my reverse 3½ tuck." Louganis, who had felt the tower shake when Shalibashvili hit, says, "I just blocked it out. If I'd had time to look at films and go through the whole emotional trauma, then it probably would have made me crazy. But I didn't. I had to get up there and do the same dive. I jumped out into the middle of the pool, but still I did the dive well."
Shalibashvili died of massive cerebral hemorrhage a week later. He was 21, two years younger than Louganis.
Louganis is as close to perfection in his sport as it's possible to be, and among all U.S. Olympic athletes, no one is a surer bet to win a gold medal in Los Angeles. Yet, it's difficult to say what makes Louganis so much better than his rivals. Diving is a complex sport, so filled with nuance that a description of every movement of even the simplest dive would read like a treatise on physiology and physics. And a dive happens so quickly, it's often hard to focus clearly on the major aspects of it. Still, some of the things that separate Louganis from mere mortals can be delineated: