BILL PLASCHKE

Greg Louganis remembers the Olympic dive that made history

And then … clunk.

"I heard a big hollow thud," he recalls. "I went crashing into the water and I thought, What was that? Was that my head?"

The replay shows the back of Louganis' head bouncing against the end of the board as he falls into the pool. The replay then shows fans in the nearby stands gasping in disbelief.

Louganis emerged from the pool holding his head in pain. Blood began to trickle down the back of his neck. His longtime coach Ron O'Brien met him and immediately pushed his hand up against Louganis' scalp to hide the bleeding from the crowd.

"At first, I was just so embarrassed," Louganis recalls. "I was like, 'How do I get out of this pool without anybody seeing me?' This is the Olympic Games, you are supposed to be a pretty good diver. Good divers don't do stuff like that."

Then, he was just scared. Dr. James Puffer, the chief physician for the 1988 U.S. Olympic team, was unaware of Louganis' condition and began treating the wound without latex gloves. Louganis wanted to stop him but couldn't.

"I knew what the situation was, and I wanted to scream out to everybody, 'Don't touch me!"' Louganis remembers. "But I knew how inappropriate that would be. I didn't know what my responsibility was. I was just scared."

That fear increased when he realized he had less than 30 minutes to climb back on the board and complete his final dive of the day. He huddled with O'Brien in a quiet area away from the cameras and tried to find himself.

"I had absolutely no confidence in myself," he recalls. "I didn't know what I did wrong, so I didn't know how to fix it."

In the end, he was drawn back to the board after an O'Brien pep talk and a realization that if he quit then, all of his struggles as an athlete and a closeted gay man would be wasted.

"I finally turned to Ron and said, 'We've worked too long and hard to give up now,'" Louganis recalls.

When he climbed back on the board, the crowd gasped again in surprise. Louganis beat his hand over his chest as if imitating his wildly pumping heart. The crowd giggled. Louganis giggled back.

"I was like, 'Oh my God, we're in this together,"' Louganis recalls. "I was like, 'I have no idea what's going to happen, but let's just go for it.'"

He did, and he nailed it, a 1 1/2 somersault with 3 1/2 twists, the best dive of the day, although he never bothered to look at the scoreboard.

"It was a huge relief. I heard the crowd reaction; I didn't need validation of the score," he says.

Though his career ended soon thereafter, one bit of unfinished business remained from that day. Seven years after Seoul, shortly before the publication of his bestselling autobiography, "Breaking the Surface," Louganis finally phoned Dr. James Puffer and informed him of his condition at the time of the cut. Louganis had assumed that, as a doctor, Puffer received regular HIV screenings, so he didn't feel it necessary to inform him earlier. It turned out that Puffer had not been screened. The doctor tested negative, and later told the New York Times that, given the circumstances, he could not criticize Louganis for his decision.

"I felt terrible," Louganis says. "But at the time, I was so young, this was all so new, I just didn't how to handle it."

Today, two of Greg Louganis' gold medals are in the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Another is with Jeanne White, the mother of Ryan White, the teenager who became a symbol of AIDS awareness in 1999 when he died of complications from AIDS at age 18 after acquiring the condition through an infected blood transfusion.

Louganis kept only one gold medal for himself. It is tucked away in his Malibu home. You have probably already guessed. It is the medal that began as a scar.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Twitter: @billplaschke

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