Olympic Confessions: 4 Former Olympians Tell All
Cobi Jones, Janet Evans, Sugar Ray Leonard and Greg Louganis on the highs and secret lows of the world's greatest sporting event.
This story first appeared in the August 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
To hear these star U.S. Olympians tell it, there is no greater glory than leading their country to victory on a global stage. And this foursome would know, with 11 medals between them, nine of them gold. But there are also hidden -- and sometimes surprising -- pitfalls to competing at the highest level. Though they come from different sports, each athlete relates to the struggles of post-Olympics life -- from coping with the agony of defeat to waiting for the endorsement deals that never come and working to stay in shape long after the Olympics torch has been extinguished. Gathered at the downtown Los Angeles Athletic Club on July 11, these four athletes -- Sugar Ray Leonard, 56; Greg Louganis, 52; Cobi Jones, 42; and Janet Evans, 40 -- reveal their favorite Olympics memories, how they adjusted to life after the Games and how they keep their gold medals clean.
The Hollywood Reporter: What's your most memorable moment from the Olympics?
Greg Louganis: The most memorable moment, for everybody else and myself, was when I hit my head on the springboard at the 3-meter springboard prelims in 1988. I remember telling my coach, "Oh my God, that's all anybody's going to remember." People still to this day will ask me, "How's your head?" (Laughter.) But for me, it was not so much hitting my head; it was the next dive, coming back. That was actually the highest scoring dive at the Games. To come back after hitting my head and then doing my reverse 1-1/2-to-3-1/2 twist -- that was memorable.
THR: How did you mentally prepare yourself to dive again after the accident?
Louganis: It was really terrifying because I had been diagnosed HIV positive six months earlier. I had my coach, Ron O'Brien, smuggle my HIV meds into [South Korea] because had anyone known my HIV status at that time, I wouldn't have been allowed in the country. It was a concern as to who would come into contact with my blood. I was paralyzed by fear. I didn't know who I could trust. And I did the only thing I knew to do, which is get back up on that board, because that's what I was trained to do.
Sugar Ray Leonoard: Greg, when you hit your head and we saw the blood it felt like, "Oh, it's over," but you came back like a fighter, man. I admire that.
Louganis: I was just taking after you! (Laughter.)
Leonard: That special moment for me was in 1976, standing on the podium, because I had beaten Cuba for the gold medal. It was bittersweet, because I was so happy that I won, but a part of me said, "Well, this is it." I had no plans of turning professional. My mother and father were sitting in the audience, and my dad was really sick. He didn't tell anyone. But that moment -- ah, nothing tops that. Someone can say, "I was world champion," but very few people can say, "I was an Olympic gold medal winner." That's special. Big time.
Janet Evans: I think that's what kind of bonds us as Olympians. My first Games were in 1988 when I was barely 17. But my memorable moment was when I was asked to run the torch at the Atlanta Opening Ceremony in '96. I was worried about it. I thought my legs would get tired! I ran up these big long ramps, and Muhammad Ali was standing there. To watch him light the torch and hear the crowd … it's very hard to describe, but for me it transcended the Olympics. It transcended winning and made me realize the Olympics move people on a much larger scale.
Cobi Jones: I never expected to get into the Olympics -- as a soccer player or as anything else! For me, it was that Opening Ceremony in Barcelona. We were all walking through with the American team. And who do they push right in behind us? Charles Barkley … the whole Dream Team! That's when it kind of hit me: We're competing to be the best. It's the cool kids' camp.
THR: Bruce Jenner was once quoted after his Olympics heyday that he felt "extremely satisfied but also devastated by the finality of it all" when the Games were over. To what degree was this your experience?
Louganis: When I was 16, [gold medal-winning Olympics diver] Pat McCormick came to me and she said, "Watch out for the post-Olympic blues." Mine were pretty severe in 1976. I went there to win and prevent [Italian] Klaus Dibiasi from breaking my then-coach, Dr. Sammy Lee's record. I was the young kid who was going to prevent [Dibiasi] from winning his third Olympic gold medal. And when I failed at that, it was public humiliation on the world stage. When I came back, I was so confused. I was still in high school and didn't understand that all these kids who used to make fun of me suddenly wanted to be my friend. But I felt like a failure. And I did try to commit suicide after that because I thought that the world would be better off without me. I've suffered from depression periodically, and my parents didn't quite know what to do.
Jones: What got you through that period?
Louganis: I was like, "OK, you know what? Rather than spend energy trying to off yourself, why don't you try to figure out why you're here?" So I put my energy into my purpose. That's why it's so important to me, the mentoring for USA Diving and reaching out to kids and talking about anti-bullying. That's what I'm very passionate about.
Evans: Because we're Olympians, we make it look easy; we're always supposed to win. I struggled with not winning, which is why that moment in '96 was so important. In 1992, I was supposed to win a race and I got second. But in my world, I lost. Our country likes to win. If you don't win, there's something wrong with you! Every Olympian I know struggles with that, but no one knows. It's hard. There are a lot of bumps in the road, but that -- I think that's part of being an athlete as well.
Leonard: I get home from the Montreal Games, and I'm anticipating to be really, really famous, but that didn't take place as far as endorsements. Corporate America at that time [wasn't putting] an African American on a Wheaties box, especially a boxer, of all people. So I was waiting by the phone and at the mailbox and nothing came through. My dad, who had spinal meningitis and tuberculosis, went into a coma. We have no money. I'm freaking out. One of my mentors, [boxing trainer] Janks Morton said, "Turn pro, you make a lot of money." I had no other alternative. Within a year, my dad regained his health and I say to myself, "This is not a bad job." So I kept going.
Louganis: For you, it was the color of your skin. For me, it was rumors of my sexuality, which were enough to keep corporate America away. In 1984, we had a lot of gold medalists. But who do you remember? Mary Lou Retton. That's it. That's what I'm most concerned about now -- the aftercare. What happens after the limelight?
Jones: Just because you do well in the Olympics does not mean you're making a lot of money. It is a lot of waiting by the phone. And if it doesn't happen, you're just like, "OK, what's my next step?" And you're out there by yourself. I think everything that Greg is doing to help people transition is so important.
Evans: There was an article in Forbes that said the majority of Olympians have hardships -- it was a pretty significant percentage that are under the poverty line. They spend seven to 10 years training and lose that valuable time in the corporate world, getting barely any kind of money from sponsorships or the Olympic Committee. And it's a very rare few that make a significant fortune based on the Olympics. We all think, "Oh, you win a gold medal and you're going to be set for life." And that is just not true.
Leonard: Except if you're Bruce Jenner, who pisses me off. (Laughter.) I think it's the hair thing. But again, I waited by the phone, and being a boxer, my whole thing is mano-a-mano. Being tough. And it takes you through a period because you don't want to appear to be weak. And at that time, corporate America did not see you as a valuable commodity. And it was tough because everyone assumed that I struck it rich right away.
THR: What are some of the more bizarre endorsement deals you were offered?
Leonard: One of the craziest, more outlandish offers was for me to be a black Superman, flying around the ghetto.
THR: Who offered this to you?
Leonard: Some small independent company. I passed on that.
Evans: I gave a speech once at a corporate event, at a resort in Mexico. Afterward, the CEO came up to me and said, "You did a great job. But you know, last year we had Mary Lou Retton here. And during her speech she did a flip onstage. You should think about integrating swimming into your speech." I was like, "Really? Like, take the guests down to the resort pool and swim a couple laps?"
THR: Was there a moment when you asked for help in navigating your post-Olympics financial affairs?
Jones: It was really a situation for me where I depended on my parents. My dad was a professor, a Ph.D. in chemistry, and my mom was a teacher. So for them, it was, go back to school, finish up at UCLA and see what happens. And that's when I got the call, to go with the national team for the World Cup and start working toward that -- to try to start making it a career.
Louganis: After the '84 games, I was signed with Stan Kamen at William Morris. He brought Kevin Costner and myself in at the same time. But then he got sick and passed away. After that, I couldn't get anybody's attention over there. They were telling me, "Oh, you need a manager." So I was turning everything over to people and not learning. Now, years later, I'm taking it over and realizing, you know what? It's not magic. I can do this. I can return the phone calls. I know what's right and what's not.
Leonard: I've received a ton of written proposals on napkins and matchbooks and things of that nature. And I, too, relied upon people to bring the goods to me. But I'm 56 now. I kind of do it myself. I have a great team, but I'm involved in my business. And if I could tell the young athletes anything, it is to be involved. No matter how young you are, you can always learn something that's going to benefit you down the road.
THR: What's the most meaningful feedback you've ever gotten about your Olympics achievements?
Leonard: I've traveled the world, and it's wonderful when people say, "My father loved you, man." That's a wonderful thing when someone years later -- three decades later -- has that same appreciation and respect.
Louganis: I'm most proud of writing [memoir] Breaking the Surface because on my book tour, I had people saying, "You've saved my life." That they were either in an abusive relationship or were diagnosed with HIV and were afraid that life was over or that they'd never have a relationship or find love. Diving and the Olympics gave me a platform to have a voice, and I've been learning to use that voice for the greater good.
Evans: After my first Olympics, I came home kind of like, "I'm famous!" But my mom's like, "You still have your chores." My parents taught me, you have a platform now and you have to use your gold medals. The glory fades, but you have to use those medals to inspire others. Greg and I were at an event the other day, and a certain Olympian there said, "Well, I never pull out my gold medals because I don't want them to get ruined." And a couple of the other Olympians and I were like, "Mine's dirty!" But so what? Your medal's not very pretty? It shouldn't be!
Louganis: I gave away one of my medals. Ryan White, who was my buddy, contracted HIV through hemophilia. He was my inspiration. So I gave that medal to Jeanne White, his mother.
Evans: Yeah, and that's what they're for. They're for sharing. The most touching thing for me as a woman is to see the changes we've made even since '88 when I went to my first Olympics, and the opportunities that exist now for women in sports. To meet people who say, "You inspired me to play soccer with the boys."
Leonard: So your gold medal's dirty? (Laughter.)
Evans: It's dented, yeah.
Leonard: Mine is too, and it's kind of a dark shade. How do you clean it?
Louganis: I don't know!
Evans: You can get your ribbon dry-cleaned, I guess.
Leonard: No, it's a little tarnished. It's like, "God, what is this?"
Evans: Take it to a jeweler!
Leonard: No, no. I've tried that. They charge you an arm and a leg.
THR: Are you all still competitive in everything you do?
Leonard: I am extremely competitive. Extremely. I played ping-pong with my kid, my 11-year-old son, Daniel, and I beat him bad. I played golf yesterday with a friend of mine and beat him. Not bad, but I gave him 20 strokes. What's made me who I am is my competitive nature.
Jones: I'm the youngest of four brothers, so I was getting beat up all the time. So, naturally, I had to hold my own. I started letting out that energy by playing soccer. I wanted to be the best. Even to this day, I'll be walking with a friend and try to be two steps ahead of him. (Laughter.) My wife has decided to just laugh at it. But I've told her, when I'm playing with my son, I'm not going to let him win. He's got to win on his own.
Leonard: I started boxing when I was 14. By the time I was 15 or 16, I was able to break my brother's nose. It felt good, too. (Laughter.) One day he looked at me and said, "You're trying to beat me." I said, "Yes, I am." I was such an introvert. I was so quiet. I was almost like a hermit because I was afraid of my own shadow. But boxing gave me confidence. It's magic.
THR: To be able to compete at the highest levels in your sports, do you think you need to be at least a little introverted?
Louganis: When we had family gatherings, I'd be in the doghouse with the dog, hiding from the people! But, you know, that's just kind of who I was. I think it helped because it really encouraged me to focus.
Evans: It varies from sport to sport. Swimming is very solitary, but swimmers in general arevery social.
Louganis: You're very social. (Laughter.)
Evans: Yes, we are! Swimmers just look at a black line for five hours a day. And then we get out of the pool and we're like, "Oh, there are things around us, and we can talk, and there are people to talk to!" I always tell people at the Olympic Village, you can tell athletes by their mannerisms. Water polo players all have bleached hair. Swimmers are too busy talking. Gymnasts are always together -- and little. When I started swimming again recently, a lot of it was because I needed some me time. I was used to five hours alone every day with just my thoughts!
THR: As Olympians, you're held to a higher standard of fitness, even long after you're done competing. What is your regimen to stay healthy and fit now?
Evans: A lot of Olympians, for the first few years after the Games -- especially gymnasts -- are like, "I'm going to eat whatever I want! No coach is telling me what to do." Then we all find out we need to be fit. It's who we are.
Louganis: A lot of Olympians find other sports, like mini-marathons and triathlons. I did the AIDS [bike] ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles back in '97. I was so proud of myself. I loved the physical challenge. I also did a 1.7-mile swim.
Evans: That's impressive, because I've seen you swim after your dives. (Laughter.)
Louganis: Thank God, I had a wetsuit! I also do yoga and spin class.
Leonard: Oh my God, I was so embarrassed, because I went to this spin class once and it was all women. And I couldn't do it! But now, I do things in moderation. I'll eat whatever I want to eat, whether it's fried chicken or whatever, but the next meal will be lighter. I eat ice cream all the time. But working out for me is therapy.
Jones: I took a year off from touching the ball in 1992. I thought I was going to work out constantly and that dwindled, and I put on a few pounds. I hit that point where you're like, "What am I doing?" Now I try to do five days a week of some type of aerobic workout and mix it up. I have a very active mind, and if I do the same thing three, four days in a row, I know I'll stop working out.
Louganis: I started doing trapeze, too. So, that's kind of a new venture for me, and then aerial silks [used in acrobatics] and slack line.
Evans: I once did a reality show that was circus-based, and we did the silks and I was terrible! I can't run. I can't hit a ball. I can't kick a ball. Swimming is a very specific skill set. I used to run a lot, but I would always trip.
Jones: I will embarrass myself in front of Sugar Ray and say that I've also tried to do a little boxing. And after about two minutes, I was absolutely exhausted. I couldn't even move. It works everything! I mean, my shoulders -- I couldn't even lift them. And the coach said, "Get the hands up!" I said, "They've been up for 10 to 15 minutes." And he says, "It's been a minute and a half."
Leonard: It's one of the best total body workouts. Also helps with stress. Whoever you think about that particular day, you hit them bad.
THR: How do you feel when you watch the Olympics now that you're retired?
Leonard: I see these athletes, and they are getting bigger and faster and quicker. I watch the Games -- I am a big fan and advocate of the Olympics. It's part of my life forever. It's part of my legacy.
Louganis: I always said I wanted to see my records broken. I want to sit in the audience and enjoy it. I want to experience that. There's a joy and love of being there and experiencing that with these kids. But I don't wish I was up there, you know? I just marvel at what they're doing. This year's Games are the first I'll attend since Atlanta, and I'm going as an athlete mentor for USA Diving.
THR: And the divers have tough competition this year. How do expectations play into competing at the Olympics?
Louganis: It's funny -- the predictions of medal counts were sent out, and diving is not on there. And I'm like, "Yes!" The expectations aren't there, and that's great for the kids.
Leonard: For my team, 1976, the boxing team, there was no expectation of a medal except one. They predicted one gold medal, and we brought back five. That was pretty cool.
Evans: At my first Olympics, I was barely 17 and swimming against the East Germans, who had dominated our sport, so no American woman was supposed to win. Sometimes when there are no expectations, that's when you do your best. I'm going this year. I want to see diving with Greg!
Jones: I'm going to be doing some analyst work for NBC in New York. So I'll be doing some of the soccer games out there. When I see the Olympics, when that music starts up, I just smile. You realize it is a family; you realize how important and tight-knit a group it is. We all agree that it's something special. Like Sugar Ray said, it's always part of our lives.
AFTER THE GAMES: These four athletes have pursued a variety of ventures in their post-Olympics careers.
Cobi Jones: The former Los Angeles Galaxy star has signed with NBC to serve as an analyst for the network's Olympic coverage of men's soccer, and he's covered the men's national team for the Fox Soccer Channel. The Southern Californian is a consultant for the New York Cosmos, a new minor-league franchise (named after the 1970s team) that will begin competition in 2013.
Janet Evans: In 2007, the swimmer released Janet Evans' Total Swimming, a book that details proper technique and offers workouts. A native of Placentia, Calif., she competed on NBC's Celebrity Circus in 2008. Evans' endorsements include BMW, Procter & Gamble and General Mills; in June, she made an unsuccessful attempt at age 40 to qualify for the London Olympics.
Sugar Ray Leonard: The boxer, a world champion in five weight divisions, last year released an autobiography, The Big Fight. Leonard, raised in Washington, D.C., competed in the 12th cycle of ABC's Dancing with the Stars, which debuted in March 2011 (he was voted off week 4). His organization, the Sugar Ray Leonard Foundation, fights childhood obesity and diabetes.
Greg Louganis: Serving as an official mentor to the U.S. diving team, Louganis will travel to London for the Games. He has written the books Breaking the Surface (1995) and For the Life of Your Dog (1999). The native of El Cajon, Calif., appeared as himself in a recent episode of IFC's Portlandia and has done appearances and speaking engagements for Red Bull and Royal Caribbean.