This year’s Rose Parade Grand Marshal is helping us usher in a new year filled with hope for a more inclusive future
Rose Parade grand marshals Greg Louganis, Janet Evans, and Allyson Felix.
It might be easy to assume a four-time Olympic gold medalist diver has never struggled much in life. With that kind of unmatched talent, doesn’t fame and fortune—and presumably happiness (and a Wheaties box)—follow?
Greg Louganis, arguably the greatest diver of all time, knows all too well that’s not quite how the story goes. Despite his success as an athlete, he’s been open about his chronic battle with depression and the emotional toll of coming out as an HIV-positive gay man in the 1990s.
But he’s managed to rise above every challenge he’s faced—whether it’s been a physical injury or a learning disability—by refusing to stop moving. At 56, he’s still showing us how to be resilient long after retiring from competitive diving. He’s the first openly gay co-Grand Marshal at this year’s 128th Rose Parade in Pasadena, California, and, as is turns out, is the perfect person to help us usher in a new year filled with hope for a more inclusive future.
“We’re all evolving,” said Louganis. “Life is always in motion. It isn’t a snapshot here or there.”
He said when reporters ask him to choose a defining moment from his life, he simply replies, “pick one.”
“They’re all defining moments,” he said. But a particularly challenging moment came in 1981, when Louganis sustained an injury to his shoulder and was told by doctors he would never dive again.
“I just poured myself into theater,” he said.
“It gave me the confidence to know I had somewhere else to express myself. Otherwise, I would have been really lost.”
Louganis credits his participation in live theater—then and now—with helping him to maintain a sense of identity outside of the world of competitive diving, but it’s also provided an opportunity for him to overcome his struggles with dyslexia.
The key, he found, was in redefining the language and approach to what had been a debilitating learning disability since childhood. Working with The Lab School in Washington, D.C., Louganis said his mind was opened up to the notion that dyslexia and other “LDs” like it actually represent mere differences in how a person learns—and not disabilities.
When a teacher told him that physically he was a genius, it blew his mind.
“I had never thought of it that way,” he said. “But that kinesthetic awareness, that mastery, there’s genius in that.”
Ironically, experts say it’s the same mechanism that creates dyslexia and learning differences like it that creates the kind of genius that has informed much of the progress and innovation we’ve seen from the likes of Richard Branson, Thomas Edison, Bill Gates, Albert Einstein, Walt Disney, and Steve Jobs, as well as stunning physical feats from athletes like Louganis and Michael Phelps.
Genius is actively being redefined by these dreamers and makers, who are able to see the world in a different way that acknowledges shapes and ignores time, and can call upon an ability to “disorient” whenever needed, says Dr. Angela Gonzales, an Irvine, California-based physician who specializes in learning differences.
“These visual, spatial learners have the ability to see the world in pictures,” she says.
And that’s exactly how Louganis once figured out how to memorize 94 pages of dialogue for a one-man show in New York in which he played 14 different characters.
“The director kept yelling at me to get off-book,” he said. “So, throughout the rehearsal process, I would read the script into a recorder and then imagine the stories happening while I was saying the words. I would rerecord and relisten every three days. That’s how I got off-book. That’s how I learned the play.”
Through his imaginary work, he said, he came to know his characters as different colors, something in their personality or cadence of speech represented a unique color by which Louganis could be triggered to remember the dialogue, rather than the words themselves.
When he froze on stage on the second night of the live performance, he turned to the audiences and said, “I’m sorry. I’m lost.” But he thought of the colors, and says “it brought me back in,” allowing him to finish the scene.
Louganis is never quite finished, especially when it comes to finding his way back from a challenge. The Rose Parade’s theme of “Echoes of Success” is most appropriate for a man whose career has spanned several decades and crossed barriers between athletics, advocacy and the arts.
After becoming the first male diver to win double gold medals in springboard and platform in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, and again in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, his 1995 autobiography, Breaking the Surface, spent five weeks at number one on The New York Times bestseller list. He has won a total of five Olympic medals, five World Championship titles and 47 national titles—more than any person in U.S. history.
Last year’s HBO documentary, Back on Board, about Louganis’ life was nominated for an Emmy award. And last April, he was finally honored with a coveted place on a Wheaties box after decades of being snubbed, despite his indisputable diving record. He continues to act, and he regularly speaks out on LGBTQ rights and HIV awareness.
On a more personal level, Louganis finds solace in knowing none of us have to be frozen in time as long as we keep moving. Still, his advice for anyone struggling to find their way at this very moment? “It’s cliché because it’s used so often, but it does get better.”