The documentary genre tends to be at its best when someone with an extraordinary mind is at the center of things. If a film immerses me in the life of an oddball artist, a forward-thinking genius, or a narcissistic conman, I’ll have a hard time resisting its pull. For better or worse, Greg Louganis is none of these things. The decorated Olympic diver, who won five metals (four gold) between 1976 and 1988, broke records with his physical skill, but he isn’t the rare personality who worms his way into your mind and stays there. Sometimes, though, two ordinary people can join forces to do something extraordinary. Louganis never would have become America’s best-ever Olympic diver had he not studied under coach Ron O’Brien, who was unfazed by his student’s homosexuality and HIV-positive status, even as a married man living in the heart of the Reagan era. The unlikely partnership between these two men forms the emotional core of director Cheryl Furjanic’s Back on Board, a documentary that has a great deal to say about sports and LGBT issues, without planting itself too firmly in the categories of “sports movie” or “gay movie.”
For someone who became a high-profile Olympic star with rumors about his sexuality constantly bubbling beneath the surface, Greg Louganis comes across as a fairly normal person. His relationship to an American public that was both proud of its successful home athlete and skeptical of his personal life was undoubtedly a difficult one, but throughout his 12-year career, his focus rarely wavered from diving. There were no on-camera breakdowns, drama-laden trips to rehab, or blindsiding public revelations about his sexuality and health. All of the components needed for any one of these disasters were there, but Louganis and O’Brien held things together so that tabloid fodder never got in the way of success. The medals came at a price: the open secret that Louganis was gay kept him from the levels of wealth and fame that his contemporaries, like gymnast Mary Lou Retton, enjoyed for years. The coveted Wheaties box eluded him.
Even in the face of financial ruin brought on by a greedy, duplicitous ex-partner, Louganis started to find his voice and his niche when he retired from competition. In his 1996 autobiography Breaking the Surface, Louganis publicly disclosed his sexual orientation and his HIV status for the first time. He was greeted by more positive reactions than he expected, and the film does an excellent job showing how the success of the book caused a gradual upward turn in Louganis’ quality of life. Throughout the ensuing book tour, lines of customers at LGBT bookstores snaked through nearby streets.
Despite of the success and peace of mind that the autobiography brought him, Louganis felt as though his sexuality rendered him unwelcome in the diving community. The film’s title refers to his re-entry into this world just as much as it refers to his overall victory against personal struggles. After over 20 years away from the sports, Louganis returned to USA Diving as a coach of the 2012 Olympic team. A key player in his decision to return was Coach Ron O’Brien, who remains a friend and mentor to Louganis until this day.
Its exploration of the friendship between Louganis and O’Brien is where Back on Board sets itself apart from the typical athletes-overcoming-adversity story. It is an incredible stroke of luck that the two men found themselves working together. Louganis believes that many coaches in the diving community would have been uncomfortable, if not openly hostile, working with a gay, HIV-positive athlete. But O’Brien brushes aside these issues, simply remarking that Greg didn’t choose to be gay; he was born that way. It’s not a terribly insightful line, but it’s said with sincerity, which makes all the difference. A climactic scene in which Louganis gifts his Olympic medals to his coach is an apt ending to a story that is ultimately about friendship, cooperation, and interpersonal understanding. Plenty of talented people face hardship, but few have the combination of personal strength and outside support needed to come through that hardship gracefully. Back on Board is unique in its understanding that redemption stories are just as much about the redeemers as the redeemed.