I almost want to thank all the bullies in my life: the ones who called me “nigger,” “retard,” “sissy boy,” and “faggot”; those who threatened to throw punches at me and took my lunch money at the bus stop; those who actually threw punches at me and rubbed my face in asphalt; my dad, who whipped me with his belt until I did a dive I was too scared to do in my regular practice; the coaches who belittled me and intimidated me into pushing myself beyond what I thought I was capable of; and the man who raped me at knifepoint, whom I then stayed with for another six years. They all helped shape me, and without those experiences I could not be the person I am today. I had to learn to “forgive” myself and then find it in my heart to “forgive” them and even bless the light in them, no matter how dim that light was. But thanking them would be going too far, and it would be inaccurate. In the end it was my inner sense of self, my willpower and determination that got me through and helped me take those experiences and literally turn them into gold.
In 1988, at the Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea, on my ninth dive in the men’s 3-meter springboard preliminaries, I struck my head on the board. Going into that Olympic event I was the favorite to win a gold medal, but in that split-second I became the “underdog.” I was scared, having been diagnosed as HIV-positive six months prior, and aware that I was in a country that would have deported me if my status were known. It was what followed that made me realize the strength and power I had within me. I was taken to a room off the pool deck, where my head was sewn up. It wasn’t bad, just four or five stitches. When my coach, Ron O’Brien, asked if I wanted to continue, I responded, without thinking, “We worked too long and hard to get there, and I don’t want to give up without a fight.”
I firmly believe that you don’t achieve greatness on your own. I drew inspiration from my coach and from an Indiana boy, Ryan White, a friend who suffered from hemophilia and contracted HIV from his clotting factor. He went on to become a national spokesperson for people with HIV, working tirelessly before his 1990 AIDS-related death to make us visible and get increased government funding. He was a fighter, and in that moment I needed to find that fighter in me.
I set the board, and my dive was announced. I could hear an audible gasp from the audience. It was a similar dive to that in, which I’d struck my head: a reverse one-and-a-half with three and a half twists. I patted my chest with a grimace on my face, and I heard a nervous chuckle from the crowd. It made me laugh a bit, and I realized these people wanted to see me succeed.
Only 22 minutes passed between the moment I struck my head on the board and the execution of that dive. I took a breath and went forward, trusting my training, my coach, and a young boy in Indiana. I did that dive, and as it turned out, it was the highest-scoring dive of that Olympic Games. In that moment I became the toughest sissy in the world. I went on to repeat that dive during the finals and took home the gold medal.
I never would have had that kind of strength and fortitude to succeed without my life’s experiences, and I mostly attribute my strength in that moment to my tormentors. But it was only after I stopped playing the “victim” role that I truly began living a life of freedom. I found the will to learn and follow the path I was put on this Earth to follow. The experiences in which I felt “less-than” are the gems of my life, because I survived.
Each of us has a hero inside us, and a uniqueness that we may not see at first, because we are so concerned with “fitting in.” We may have a different walk or talk, a different way of learning, a physical appearance that doesn’t match others’ expectations, or a different way of expressing ourselves. In time, in my own experience, I learned to celebrate my uniqueness, cherish who I am as a human being, and act out of love and compassion for my fellow human beings. And, to borrow my mom’s saying, “I make everywhere I go better, because I was there.” I practice that every day and live it to the best of my ability.
To those who are being tormented, use those moments to find that inner self and that fortitude. It does get better!