The Virginian-Pilot
                             THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT 
              Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: Wednesday, March 15, 1995              TAG: 9503150018
                                             LENGTH: Medium:   77 lines


ON MONDAY AT NOON, as half the sport talk shows were at work on this week's question for the ages - ``Will MJ Join Dah Bulls?'' I was doing a conference call with the world's greatest Olympic diver.

The diver is Greg Louganis, the four-time Olympic gold medal diving champion, five-time world champion, and the winner of 47 U.S. national diving titles - more than anyone in U.S. history.

You may recall Louganis was the subject of last month's question for the ages: ``Should Louganis have participated in the 1988 Seoul Olympics knowing he had the HIV virus?''

The question arose after release of Louganis' autobiography - ``Breaking the Surface'' - several weeks ago. In the book, he tells of his anguish after suffering a head wound when he struck a diving board in Seoul.

Had he possibly infected other divers when a trickle of blood spilled into the pool? Had he placed the life of the gloveless doctor who stitched his head at risk?

Those questions were raw meat for media columnists and talk shows - particularly TV, which endlessly replayed the accident with the diving board - and assured ``Breaking the Surface'' brisk sales across the country.

As of last weekend, the autobiography had not broken the surface of The New York Times best-seller list. Before the conference call - in which more than a dozen newspaper writers from across the United States participated - we were told the book will emerge at the head the New York Times list of best sellers this Sunday.

Over the phone, Louganis' voice sounded like a polite monotone tinged with fear. And anyone who reads his book can understand why.

No one reading it will ever view a sports idol with the same eyes again. It is a book that leaves a reader feeling a lot better about the hand life has dealt him.

Louganis, with his broad, All-American grin, lithe body and poise under pressure, seemed to define athletic grace. A homosexual who has come out of the closet, he reveals a past that is a twisting chamber of horrors.

``I wished I'd learned earlier that I was a worthwhile person with better self-esteem, because not having it caused a lot of pain,'' Louganis said.

Small wonder he lacked self-esteem despite the Olympic medals. As a boy he was called ``sissy'' for his acrobatic interest and ``nigger'' because he is part Samoan. He had a cold and distant father.

There were recurring bouts of deep depression, which he attempted to treat himself with morphine. He had abusive relationships with other men and once was raped at knife point. There was an agonizing period trying to deal with the reality of his virus infection while caring for a father who was dying of cancer. Then, too, there was the verbal abuse from other divers who suspected the homosexuality Louganis did not openly acknowledge.

It's impossible to read the book without feeling a deep sense of pity for Louganis. After the Olympian contracted HIV, doctors prescribed Flagyl, a drug used to treat intestinal parasites.

``Flaygl . . . makes everything taste metallic, so nothing tastes good. Even a glass of water tastes like liquefied tin,'' Louganis writes. In a way, the book is a dive into liquid Flaygl. The taste is of tin rather than Olympic gold.

Writing the book has been therapy for him, the diver said.

``I've learned at the book signings that everyone has obstacles,'' he said.

``People wait in line to see me, saying there's plenty of living to be done even if you have an HIV diagnosis. People say they are 10- or 15-year survivors and still moving forward.''

Oddly, Louganis has moved forward by taking an agonizing look back. ``Breaking the Surface'' both shames and ennobles its author. It is an honest account of a hero's plunge into dark and chilling depths that few have experienced or imagined. ILLUSTRATION: Color photos