HARLEM—Olympic diving gold medalist Greg Louganis told a group of students at the Harlem YMCA to ignore bullies and negtive criticism in pursuit of their goals.
Wearing a T-shirt, jeans and sandals, Louganis, looking incredibly fit, told students about his challenges with bullies growing up, as well struggling with letting the world know that he was gay and had contracted HIV.
"One of the things I try to practice on a daily basis is the idea what others think of me is really none of my business," Louganis told about 30 young people during Y Talks, meant to give young people an opportunity to meet with inspirational people.
"I know who I am and my friends know who I am," said Louganis, 52, a four-time gold medalist.
At the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea, Louganis struck his head on the springboard while completing a dive.
Unbeknownst to the world at the time, Louganis had been diagnosed with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, just six months earlier. He kept it a secret so that he could compete.
After hitting his head, Louganis' coach told him that he could call it quits without shame.
"Nobody's going to fault you if you want to pack your bags and go home," said Louganis, who decided to go on.
"We've worked too long and hard to get here and I don't want to leave without a fight," Louganis remembers telling his coach.
He came back to win two gold medals using the memory of Ryan White, a boy who was kicked out of school after contracting HIV because of a blood transfusion, as inspiration.
"He fought for the right of kids living with HIV to have an education," said Louganis. "He was my inspiration."
Louganis, who remembers being called names by bullies growing up, told students that he felt bad for a lot of the kids calling him names.
"When I look at the bullying I was subjected to, a lot of those guys weren't happy with themselves," said Louganis.
He used the abuse as motivation.
"I thank all of those people...who threw punches and called me names. Without them, I wouldn't be who I am," he said.
Louganis came out and announced his HIV status to the world in 1995 on the Oprah Winfrey Show.
He said the support of his parents, who brought him to the Y to learn to swim, friends and coaches, was critical to his success.
"I'm a firm believer you don't achieve greatness on your own," said Louganis. "When they put that medal around my neck, it was an acknowledgement of everyone in my life."
Students at the speech, many too young to remember Louganis' feat in 1988, said they were still inspired.
"I was inspired by what he overcame. He was adopted and overcame difficult issues," said Ansha Keiler, 17, a senior at Washington Irving High School. "It shows you can overcome difficulties."
Danielle Montindabeka, 17, also a senior at Washington Irving, said the speech caused her to look at difficult areas in her own life.
"Everything he went through, the HIV, was so hard. I know I can do whatever I want even though I have problems," Montindabeka said.
Louganis, also an author, dancer and diving instructor, said he's heading back to this summer's Olympics in London as a mentor for the U.S. diving team, the first time he's been since the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
China is now the country to beat in diving, he said but the United States has some excellent competitors who will contend for medals.
"We have to walk before we can run," said Louganis. "Our goal is to get a team or individual on the medal platform."