People who watch Greg Louganis dive in competition seem compelled to liken his craft or art to something else. So smooth, so seamless are the few seconds he spends in midair—at times he seems to float beyond the reach of gravity—that great dancers come to mind; thus, Louganis is "the Nureyev of diving" or "the Baryshnikov of diving," depending on how current one wants to be on Russian ballet dancers. Many of his opponents use the words "catlike" and "feline" to describe the way he moves. His father, sitting beneath a framed photograph of his son doing a swan dive, says, "I see him as a bird."
Asked what creature he would most like to be compared to, Gregory Efthimios Louganis, 21 now and not yet completely out of the shell he hid in as a youngster, thinks for a while and then says, "A panther. I have been called that by one of my dance teachers."
Perhaps Louganis inherited his smoothness and grace from his Samoan ancestors, perhaps he acquired them, along with his extraordinary strength and discipline, after he was adopted by the Louganises, by dancing and tumbling from the time he was a baby, not yet 2. The fact is that for as long as anyone can remember, Louganis has had star quality. Followers of diving speak of his "God-given talent" and call him a "natural." Even though he has yet to win an Olympic gold medal (the Olympic boycott last year cost him a crack at two), Louganis is acknowledged as one of the great divers of the world and the very best in springboard. He has won 16 national championships, an Olympic silver medal in 1976, a gold medal at the 1978 World Championships, two golds at the 1979 Pan American Games and a gold at the 1979 World Cup. He has also won three NCAA titles and has a chance of winning four more, which would surpass the record of five held by seven others. He is something apart, a nonpareil.
Watching Louganis take off from a diving board can take your breath away. He soars higher than any of his rivals, he spins and twists more smoothly, more slowly, it seems. Then he lines up his body so that it is perfectly straight and vertical to the pool and. with his arms outstretched, continuing the line of his body, palms out, punches a hole in the surface of the water just big enough for his body to slip through with the least possible splash. In a reverse 1½ layout off the three-meter springboard—his most consistently spectacular dive, one that nobody may ever do as well as he does—he seems to float horizontally like a magic carpet, arcing ever so slowly. "When he does it perfectly," says Ron O'Brien, his coach at Mission Viejo, Calif., "the crowd knows that it has seen something unusual. The judges know it. It's nothing he does technically. It's his grace, along with his strength to hold it in the air, and the lines of his body. Esthetics are an important part of our sport."
This dive usually earns him 10s from the judges, the highest score they can give. "He is the only diver I have seen who is capable of getting 10s on all his dives," says Dr. Sammy Lee, his former coach and the 10-meter Olympic champion in 1948 and 1952. Indeed, at last month's indoor nationals in Columbus, Ohio, Louganis' back dive in the pike position off the three-meter board earned him eight 10s from the nine judges. His total for the 11 three-meter dives came to a record 715.74 points. Only he had ever surpassed 700 before: at a meet in Canberra, Australia this January. "With someone like him," says Lee, "they're going to have to raise the scoring to 11s and 12s."
A "perfect 10" in diving requires three ingredients. In the jargon they are 1) a great "top"—soaring height and the ability to perform graceful acrobatics high above the water, 2) getting straight up and down—preparing for entry by becoming perpendicular to the water and 3) a "rip" entry, so named for the sound the diver ought to make as he punches through the surface and enters without a splash. In all this, the lines of the body are extremely important, down to the toes, which ideally should be curled under like a ballerina's on point.
The physical equipment Louganis possesses is formidable. His vertical jump from a standing position on the 10-meter platform has been measured at 37 inches. When he bounces up off the three-meter springboard, his feet seem to reach the level of the seven-meter warmup tower. He is also fortunate enough to have the look of the ideal diver. At 5'9" and 150 pounds, his body is the perfect size, with just the right proportions to satisfy the esthetic requirements judges subconsciously impose.
"Louganis' body is beautiful," says veteran diver Mike Finneran, an old rival. "He never looks bad. He has good toes, good feet, good legs, a good back position, flexible shoulders and a flat lineup. Other divers have some of these qualities. He has them all."
"You just follow your instincts," Louganis says. "When you're in the air, you have something like a cat's sense. You're aware of where your body is going, and your peripheral vision tells you how high off the water you are, so you can plan your dive and your entry. If you are diving well, you have all the time in the world to attend to the details."
Until three years ago, Louganis was primarily a tower specialist. The 10-meter tower is a platform cantilevered out 33 feet above a pool that is 17 feet deep. From his starting position the tower diver looks 50 feet straight down to the bottom of the pool. "And some pools," says Louganis, "look like a little postage stamp." Tower diving isn't for those fearful of heights, but it's considered easier to master than springboard diving. A tower is a constant; it doesn't whip, the way a springboard does, requiring very precise timing for the takeoff.