I had my first dance performance on stage when I was 3. Before the recital, my teacher was getting frustrated with me. I had my costume on—including top hat and cane—and I was struggling with some of the choreography. She said, “Okay, do the routine fluid,” and then put the music on and left the room. My interpretation of that instruction was to imagine myself doing the routine and making it fluid.
When she came back, she turned up the tempo and told me again to “make it fluid.” And I did. The visualizing was really very smart, because at 3, having me do the moves over and over again would have just fatigued my muscles beyond their ability to perform. Instead, I got an introduction to visualization, a technique that continues to serve me today.
Before I would go to sleep the night before each big competition, I would visualize my dives and get into the mindflow of being successful. It’s not about perfection, but about being as good as you can be in that moment in time. I would go through each dive in the venue that I was going to be performing in. I would fill the seats with the audience, put the camera operators in position, and go through my dives the way that I was going to perform them the next day.
How else can you break world records? You’re venturing into unknown territory, territory where no one has been before. The only way to do that is to allow yourself the imagination to push through those limiting thoughts and beliefs. Your mind is a playground, and when you challenge it, you realize there really are no limits to what you can do with it. So play with it, have fun.
Bringing the Moment Back Into Focus
Everybody expected me to bring home two gold medals from the 1988 Seoul Olympics, but the truth is that nothing is guaranteed. I knew I was going to be close to the diving board when I took off during the preliminary rounds. I thought I had gotten past it when I heard this big, hollow thud. I was thinking, What was that? as I went crashing into the water. I realized my head had hit the board, and the first thing I felt was embarrassment. I was wondering how I could get out of that pool without anybody seeing me. This was the Olympics, and I was supposed to be a pretty good diver! Pretty good divers don’t go around hitting their heads on the board.
When something like that happens, you lose all confidence in yourself. I had lived my life knowing I would be training for the world championships and the Pan American Games and preparing to make it to the Olympics every four years. I was constantly checking to see if I was on schedule, if I needed to adjust anything to meet those goals.
But real life doesn’t work that way. Hitting my head was a wake-up call to pay attention. It was a reminder to focus and to take it one dive at a time, one moment at a time. It helped bring back into focus what was important at that very moment.
Your mind is a playground, and when you challenge it, you realize there really are no limits to what you can do with it.
After I hit my head, my coach said, “Look, you don’t have to go on. You can walk away right now, and I’ll support you completely.” But I made the decision to continue—I felt I’d worked too hard and too long to get to where I was. I didn’t want to give up without a fight. He took me on a walk and told me he knew that my confidence had been shattered, and he asked me to believe in him because he believed in me. He told me that hockey players will get 30 stitches and come back to get on the ice.
“You got five stitches in your head,” he said. “That’s nothing.” We were laughing and I knew I’d have to set it aside like it hadn’t happened—even though it had.
When I returned to the diving board a half-hour later, they announced the dive—“Greg Louganis, reverse 1 1/2 with 3 1/2 twists”—and I heard an audible gasp from the audience. I took a deep breath, patted my chest, and took another deep breath. The people who saw me do that knew I was afraid, and they were afraid too, and no one knew what was going to happen. And that somehow made me laugh, which took the power right out of my fear. That dive earned a gold medal.
Tapping Into the Senses as a Meditation
I don’t judge what happened. I just had to deal with the situation. There was so much going on in that moment in time: I’d been diagnosed with HIV just six months prior to those Olympic Games, and hitting my head led to these debates on what my responsibility was because of that diagnosis. It really opened up communication about HIV/AIDS, and it also opened up a lot of people’s hearts. All these years later, people still remember me hitting my head on the springboard. Even if they weren’t watching the Olympics or following the news, it was everywhere, and there was a visceral response to it that seemed to burn it into people’s memories.
In my youth, I was very depressed. I attempted suicide first at age 12 and later as a senior in high school. After my third suicide attempt my freshman year in college, I decided to figure out why I was here rather than putting energy into trying to off myself. That has evolved over the years, from my identity being tied up in diving—having all these records and people recognizing me—to coming to terms with my own sexual identity and being HIV-positive. Now it’s about trying to do as much good as possible to be in service to others. Many people see me today as an activist, although I don’t really view myself as an activist. I’m just living my life authentically, speaking out on the things that I care about most.
That’s why I developed my online meditation course, which is available on my website (greglouganis.com). The course breaks down the practice of mindfulness into the smallest increment of learning, helping people understand all the different elements of a meditation practice—breath, body awareness, and visualization. Deconstructing all these elements can help anyone be successful in creating their own meditation practice.
I’m teaching a lot of adults, but what I really hope is that they take those exercises and the tools that they learn and share them with their kids. The program uses games to encourage people to get in touch with their childlike curiosity to explore. You’re baking cookies, or you’re on a roller coaster ride, or you’re turning into a hummingbird—it’s fun, but it also teaches you how to tap into using all of your senses in your visualization work.
There are certain senses that are often stronger than we’re aware of, and they can help us better connect to the visualization practice. When we tune in to our senses of smell, touch, taste, sight, and sound, we find connection. And that’s the primary goal, finding a way to help us always feel connected, to remember to stay present and notice that we’re surrounded by all of God’s gifts, no matter what.
This article appeared in Unity Magazine®.