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Greg Louganis documentary a compelling look at a gay sports hero

"Back on Board" looks at an Olympic champion who is the ultimate survivor.

Greg Louganis competing in the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics
Greg Louganis competing in the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics
Pascal Rondeau /Allsport

"Back on Board: Greg Louganis" is a brilliant and timely documentary about the life and times of the greatest diver in Olympic history and a man who is an important figure in the gay sports movement.

Louganis is the only diver to win both the platform and springboard Olympic diving golds in back-to-back Olympics (1984 and 1988). His win in Seoul in 1988 was even more amazing after he gashed his head on the board during a preliminary dive, drawing blood into the water. This happened after Louganis had tested positive for HIV (which he kept secret at the time) and while there was still hysteria about how the virus was spread.

The film, directed by Cheryl Furjanic and produced by Furjanic and Will Sweeney, is a tour de force look into the life of Louganis, from a rocky childhood to the present, where he is now a happily married man (trust me, there is a lot in between). Louganis and his husband, Johnny Chaillot , attended the sold-out screening of the film at Outfest in Los Angeles, and the diver was given a standing ovation after during a Q&A. The film was so well received it won the Audience Award for best Documentary Feature.

The film, while focusing on Louganis' diving career and personal life, also is a glimpse inside the country's Great Recession, as Louganis was caught up in the same mortgage trouble as millions of Americans. The film opens with Louganis near his phone in his Malibu home, threatened with repossession, as a distant female voice from the bank tries to collect on the outstanding loan.

The home, which Louganis bought with the relatively meager earnings from his four gold medals, is a symbol of stability for a man who had very little in his life. In addition to contracting HIV, Louganis was ripped off by his first lover and business manager, Jim, who was nothing but a con man. In a testament to Louganis' humanity, he nonetheless wound up supporting this man, by then his ex, as Jim was dying of AIDS.

Louganis' sexual orientation is an obvious thread to the film. He recalls the awful homophobic slurs he endured from fellow divers once they suspected he was gay. The fact that Louganis was a budding superstar on the diving board didn't make him popular or welcomed by his fellow divers, for whom the fact that he was gay was reason enough to shun him. It must have been awfully lonely for Louganis, who could not find comfort even in his sport.

After winning his first two gold medals, Louganis had hope to cash in with advertisers like other Olympians, but his representatives were told by one major U.S. company that Louganis didn't fit the image they wanted; i.e., they didn't want a gay man (though still closeted) endorsing their product. His longtime coach, Ron O'Brien, says simply that had Louganis been straight, he would have become a millionaire.

O'Brien is a hero in this film and a rock for Louganis. Though straight, O'Brien unconditionally supported Louganis and helped make him the diver and person he is today. One of the many scenes that will bring a tear to your eye occurs late in the film when Louganis gives O'Brien one of his gold medals.

I watched the film with Dave Kopay, the NFL player who came out as gay in 1975, and there were many times I looked over to see him wiping away a tear or nodding as some truth from Louganis' life resonated with him. These were two LGBT heroes, who came out long before it was considered OK to be gay in sports. People like Michael Sam and Jason Collins owe a debt to people like Louganis and Kopay.

"Back on Board" is a must-see for any sports fan, someone interested in LGBT history or someone who simply wants to watch a wonderfully constructed look at a true hero and survivor.

The producers of the film are trying to secure distribution of "Back on Board" for TV or movie theaters, and it will be show at film festivals this fall. To get the latest information check out:
https://www.facebook.com/LouganisDoc
https://twitter.com/louganisdoc
http://louganisdoc.com/news/