- Olympic Gold Medalist Greg Louganis is working to raise awareness of mental health challenges people face and how to overcome them.
- He says learning to live an authentic life and finding support helped him alleviate stress and anxiety when he was younger.
- Raising awareness of health challenges for aging members of the LGBTQ+ community and people living with HIV is also a cause close to his heart.
Greg Louganis says that in order to navigate the stresses of daily life, you have to find your rhythm.
He’s an icon of the Olympic diving board with four gold medals to his name, an LGBTQ+ activist, an HIV awareness and mental health advocate, as well as an actor. In order to stay centered and calm through it all, it goes back to something very simple — just breathing in and out.
“A lot of it is getting back in touch with your breath,” Louganis told Healthline. “If you’re dealing with a negative thought loop, there are exercises to reset your whole nervous system and potentially get into a more positive frame of mind, of letting that [internal] critic go or quieting down the critic.”
Lately, Louganis has been thinking a lot about how to offer recommendations to others to manage their mental health in the face of an ever-more-complex world. He’s been working with mental wellness app Aura Health, sharing the story of his own mental health journey through motivational video content.
Serving as a motivational speaker and coach is a role he’s dove into enthusiastically, with this current partnership an extension of work he says he’s long been doing to inspire others.
Most of the world first became aware of Louganis through his immense success as an Olympic diver. He’s made quite the splash, winning four gold medals between the 1984 Los Angeles and 1988 Seoul games, and is still the only man and second diver to place first in the diving events in consecutive Olympics. But there’s more to his story than his athletic achievements.
He majored in theater and minored in dance at the University of California, Irvine, acted professionally on stage and screen, served as a coach for the next generation of divers, and even imparted his competitive streak to his beloved dogs, participating in dog agility competitions.
Louganis said it was always important for him to be seen as a whole person and spending years focusing on just one aspect of his public life, the one that most people knew, became too “limiting” for him.
That changed for Louganis in 1993 when he decided to write a book about his life, “to share myself with the world.”
Louganis was not only living privately as a gay man but also was living with HIV at the height of the AIDS crisis. He was diagnosed back in 1988 at 28 years old and shared he didn’t think he would “live to see 30.”
This process of unpacking and excavating his life for his book resulted in coming out publicly as gay in an announcement broadcast during the 1994 Gay Games and then coming out again as a person living with HIV the following year, right as his memoir, “Breaking the Surface,” was released.
Louganis said that these public revelations, of owning himself and claiming his story in front of a world that had long been following his journey from afar, were all about “being able to embrace myself as a human being.”
That book tour itself was a powerful experience for Louganis. That’s when his place as an LGBTQ+ and HIV community advocate was cemented.
“There were people coming to me saying, ‘oh, you saved my life.’ They came out to their friends and family about their sexual identity or their HIV status or even people came up to me and said ‘you gave me courage to leave an abusive relationship.’ So many things came from that whole experience,” he said. “You can let go of secrets, you don’t have to censor yourself…it’s just be who you are.”
“That alleviates so much stress because then you can just speak your mind and not worry about what you shared with this person or that person and just be yourself and not hold back,” he added.
At age 63, Louganis’ life has shifted and changed dramatically and his story of perseverance is one that is relatable to a lot of older LGBTQ+ people.
However, many aging members of the community do not have the same support or access to needed care as he has had and Louganis is working to raise awareness of the particular mental and physical health challenges that many in the community face as they age.
Dr. Matthew Hirschtritt, MD, a psychiatrist and researcher at Kaiser Permanente in Oakland, California, said one challenge that many older LGBTQ+ people are facing is a lack of social and familial supports that many of their straight and cisgender peers have.
They also face higher rates of housing and economic insecurity, compounded by discrimination that they have encountered most of their lives.
As a result, Hirschtritt, who is unaffiliated with the Aura Health partnership, explained that this can result in “higher levels of anxiety, isolation, depression.”
It’s something Louganis has made a focus of his current advocacy, especially when it comes to older members of the LGBTQ+ community who are also living with HIV.
“A lot of the older HIV community concerns are housing, healthcare, finance — there’s a lot of that, it’s a reality for them,” Louganis said.
In trying to find LGBTQ-inclusive mental health resources to deal with these many complex, often overwhelming, issues, Hirschtritt told Healthline that challenges of access and availability greatly vary from population to population within that greater LGBTQ+ umbrella.
For instance, someone with the financial means and resources to access the kinds of insurance coverage needed for many mental health services will have a vastly different experience than someone with limited resources and income.
Hirschtritt added that perhaps the “one silver lining” coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic was the increased infrastructure that made virtual care more possible for people who might not be in physical or geographic proximity to a provider.
It might bring them access to a provider “who either matches their needs or has a similar background to their own,” as long as they have access to the Internet, he said.
“That is something increasingly that is happening where maybe older adults — especially those who have intersecting identities [like an older trans person of color] may be able to connect with mental health providers who may be out of state, or much farther for them normally — now tend to have increased access by way of virtual care,” Hirschtritt added.
Louganis has also been open about his journey with substance use, explaining that in the past, he turned to using substances to “self-medicate.”
In times when he was “in emotional pain” he would try to “deaden” those feelings by way of painkillers or alcohol. These outlets would only provide “temporary relief,” he stressed. The problems wouldn’t go away.
It’s another thing he has been reflecting a lot on, especially in light of the very recent global pandemic.
During COVID-19 lockdowns, Louganis said isolation increased for everyone.
People would “stay in ruts,” which has made it even harder to return to a sense of social normalcy that many of us have been reengaging with over the past few years. In many cases, this isolation would force people into some of the kinds of destructive cycles of “self-medication” that he used to fall into.
However, he said he’s learned this is another area where breathwork and visualization exercises can be helpful.
“I’m not super social myself, and so I challenge myself, and I always comment to myself that ‘I’m exercising my courage muscles,'” he said. “It’s important that you exercise those courage muscles and a lot of times how I am challenging myself is putting myself into social situations — and not that I have to be the life of the party and dancing on the bars on the tables — but just getting out there and meeting people and finding people with like interests and like values is a good thing.”
That might sound easier said than done for many people.
When it comes to those courage muscles, Louganis has been giving them a workout throughout his whole life. From adversity to success and every moment in between.
“For me…my process is that I write it on the calendar, [if I] get an invitation, I say ‘yes,’ write it on the calendar…and then I might have a chat with myself of ‘you got this’ positive affirmations, ‘it’s all going to be good,’ and really acknowledge and give myself credit for exercising my courage muscles,” he said.