Best-seller smiles of Greg Louganis can't quell sadness A POOL OF EMOTIONS

March 11, 1995|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Sun Staff Writer

It's a well-trod path by now, the road to best-seller status for the celebrity author: first the exclusive Barbara Walters confessional, then Larry King Live, then Oprah, then a multi-city tour for bookstore signings and interviews with the local media.

This time, it's Greg Louganis drawing the cameras and the crowds with his new tell-all, "Breaking the Surface" (Random House, $23), which has shot to the top of best-seller lists just two weeks after hitting the shelves.

But underneath the hyperactive, circus-like atmosphere of the modern-day book tour, there is a discomfiting aspect to this one, a sense of sadness that no amount of bright lights and big crowds can change.

The news of the book is that the legendary Olympic diver, regarded as the greatest of all time, has AIDS. And so there is this odd, unsettling mix of both commercialism and compassion, of selling and consoling, as the gentle, sweet-faced Mr. Louganis tours the country peddling his book even as he is dealing with the sad and sobering fact of his disease.

The tour brought him to Baltimore yesterday, for a fund-raiser that had been scheduled long before the AIDS revelation but only sold out after it. Some 500 people bought $35 tickets for the dinner at the Peabody Library last night, which benefited AIDS Action Baltimore, Johns Hopkins' Moore Clinic, which treats HIV-positive adults, and other AIDS organizations.

"The support is just overwhelming," Mr. Louganis exclaimed last night, running his hands through his salt-and-pepper hair and marveling at a festive crowd that was cheering and waving and yelling "We love you!" as he spoke from one of the library's balconies. "A lot of the time before I wrote the book, my life was about secrets. I felt I was living on an island without a telephone."

At every stop on the 16-city book tour, the deeply tanned Mr. Louganis has been swamped with overwhelming and often emotional crowds, more than 1,000 people at some locations. He seems genuinely touched by the outpouring of people who want to hug him, thank him and get photographed with him at the book signings -- and it's an activity, no matter how draining, he seems to welcome, more so than the media interviews that he has begun to limit. The book has sold far beyond expectations -- it's already into its seventh printing for a total of 255,000 copies.

"In doing the book tour . . . I realize everyone has a story," Mr. Louganis said, sharing a few with the Baltimore crowd: One man told him his father died the night before of AIDS-related complications, and the son promised him he'd stand in line to meet Mr. Louganis and offer support. One woman asked for his autograph for her dying son, hoping it would give him incentive to stay alive for another birthday.

At Borders in Rockville Thursday night, Mr. Louganis sat for more than three hours, patiently signing books, popping up and down from his seat to be photographed, waiting as nervous fans fumbled and dropped their cameras and books and listening as they whispered to him or gave him little presents. One woman gave him a tape by New Age musician Enya, explaining that it had helped her through some rough times.

"I have 27 friends who have had AIDS and he now makes 28," Vince Careatti said with a catch in his voice. "He's another friend with AIDS."

The Annandale, Va., man said he felt as if he knew Mr. Louganis, something you hear often as people struggle to explain why the news of his illness struck them so personally even though they'd never met him.

"It broke my heart," said Roni Lavache of Silver Spring, as she waited in line for his autograph.

The book is a frank and often moving account of Mr. Louganis' life. He made news by revealing that he was HIV-positive at the time of the 1988 Olympics, when during a dive he crashed into the board and bled into the pool.

Sympathetic themes

But beyond the revelations, the book contains numerous themes that have struck a chord with many readers: Mr. Louganis discusses his childhood as an adopted boy unsure of parental love, an adolescence of confused sexuality, a series of trouble-filled relationships, including a harrowingly abusive one in which he was raped at knifepoint by his partner, a lifelong struggle with addiction and, perhaps most touching, a reconciliation with his father after both learned they were suffering from fatal diseases.

"He somehow personifies something very important to people, as far as overcoming obstacles and doing so with grace and humility and just continuing to plug away," said Jed Mattes, the agent who developed Mr. Louganis' book. "If the book was only (( about the HIV revelation, it would not have been this explosive. It shows first and foremost the extraordinary place Greg holds in America's heart."

Gold medal-winning dives in 1984 and 1988 made Mr. Louganis, an Olympic athlete of breathtaking grace and precision, a national hero. His shy smile and slightly exotic handsomeness made him a heartthrob, among gays and straights alike.

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