Gold medalist shares his story of living with HIV/AIDS

In three words, Greg Louganis relayed the worst of living with the thought of AIDS.

“Secrets isolate you,” Louganis told a standing room only audience Friday at the Embassy Suites in West Palm Beach.

His words were a reference to his training prior to the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. That’s when Louganis, a U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame diver, tested positive for HIV.

“I had nobody to talk to,” Louganis said. “I felt like I was living on an island with barely a phone for communication to the outside world.”

Louganis brought international attention to AIDS after he hit his head on the diving board during the Seoul Olympics. He cringed as he watched a video of the dive shown just before his speech at Friday’s luncheon commemorating the 30th Anniversary of the Comprehensive AIDS Program of Palm Beach County (CAP).

“With the stigma and my sexual identity there were so many secrets,” Louganis said.

Louganis ultimately came out publicly about being HIV positive and a gay man. He said his doctor in Boca Raton at the time of his diagnosis decided to treat the virus aggressively with AZT, a pill Louganis said he took every four hours.

“Words do not even describe,” said Toni May, the luncheon’s emcee. “The whole time he was living with HIV and taking the drug AZT and yet he still managed to compete at that level. Everyone in this room knows taking AZT is not just taking an aspirin.”

That aggressive early treatment, coupled with healthy decisions along the way (going on nine years sober), is why Louganis is here today. The five-time Olympic medalist is now 55 and “proud of it.”

“It’s incredible when I look at this program and go through the years and look how far we’ve come and how CAP has evolved with those times. We are living longer,” Louganis said. “When I turned 40, I was like ‘shit’ I’ve got to get a job so I can pay my bills because I’m going to be here for a while.”

For 30 years, FoundCare’s CAP program has led the way in providing services to those with HIV/AIDS. Last year alone the program assisted more than 3,000 people in Palm Beach County.

Several community leaders were presented with awards recognizing their commitment to CAP through the years. Bob Bertisch was awarded CAP’s Visionary Award for his work in providing legal aid; Larry Osband, who raised heterosexual awareness of the disease, received the Advocacy Award; Ronald J. Wiewora, M.D. and Chief Medical Officer of the Health Care District of Palm Beach County, received the Larry Lee Memorial Award for his compassionate care; and the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church was honored for graciously opening its doors — and hearts — to CAP clients.

“I can remember when people with AIDS were not allowed on planes and they had to use plastic forks and spoons,” said Palm Beach County Mayor Shelley Vana, whose telephone rang during her speech at the podium.

Times have indeed changed in the world, however and Palm Beach County is a leader in HIV/AIDS care, said those gathered at the Embassy Suites near the Palm Beach International Airport.

“Where we once directed our energies on helping people living with HIV/AIDS maintain their dignity and avoid stigma as they prepared for their inevitable passing, we now help our clients manage chronic disease and achieve positive health outcomes,” said Yolette Bonnet, FoundCare Chief Executive Officer.