Thursday, April 7, 2016

Better Eat Some Wheaties

One cereal that never made it to my table: Wheaties.

That's right: Not one time ever in my life has a spoonful of "The Breakfast of Champions" met my taste buds. 

Maybe it was a family thing, but growing up in suburban Oklahoma City, Corn Flakes, Grape-Nuts and an array of sugared cereals are what landed in my mother's grocery cart and kitchen cabinets. So much for raising an Olympian. 

Not even Mary Lou Retton's gold medal grin could change this; Caitlyn (then Bruce) Jenner's decathlon victory also cleared no hurdles on the cereal row for this child of the '70s. 

Come to think of it, I'm not sure my eyes ever went in search of Wheaties while doing my own grocery buying as an adult -- of the Big G/General Mills cereals, Honey Nut Cheerios Medley Crunch is kind of my preference (though I sneak a box of Kellogg's Frosted Flakes from time to time). 

I might just try Wheaties later this spring, however, inspired by the brand's decision to honor three additional Olympic champions of my youth: Edwin Moses, Janet Evans and Greg Louganis. According to The New York Times and other sources, this week the P.R. team for Wheaties made the announcement about the trio of new "Team Wheaties" champion boxes set to his stores later this spring. 

Like the article in The Times, an "All Things Considered" interview with Louganis on National Public Radio detailed an online petition that likely swayed Wheaties to consider a Louganis image for the cereal aisle. 

The five-time medalist is not the first Olympic diver on the orange box, but one of only a few, according to this list which names 1932 Los Angeles Olympic diver Jane Fauntz as the second Wheaties woman, chosen in tandem with or just after fellow '32 Olympian Mildred "Babe" Didrikson Zaharias was named the first female Wheaties Champion. 

Louganis' NPR interview about Wheaties reminded me of my own conversation with the Olympic diver who earned four gold medals (1984 LA and 1988 Seoul) and one silver medal (1976 Montreal). The hero of the high dive spoke with me for about 12 minutes during the Team USA Media Summit in Los Angeles last month.

Photo by Nicholas Wolaver
My first questions for Louganis concerned his role with the LA24 Olympic bid team as our chat took place moments before the committee announced its Athlete Advisory Commission (AAC) led by Evans. 

Louganis explained his longtime friendship with the Olympic swimmer made his support of LA24 an easy sell. 

"Janet Evans is dear friend and she called to see if I'd be willing [to support the bid] and I said, 'Yes!'" said Louganis.

He added that prior to the March 8 announcement, Louganis contributed time at other LA24 events and the U.S. Olympic Committee's Road To Rio events that launched last year. I asked him what experiences from LA84 gave him the most to talk about in relation to the current bid.

"It was such a magical time to be in LA," said Louganis. "I was born and raised in Southern California, so it was great for it to be in my own backyard and to be able to share that with friends.

"I remember we were training before our event in Mission Viejo and the cycling was going through and it was so exciting," added Louganis. "One thing that was funny during that time: I would see how the teams and some of my friends were doing but then when it came to the awards ceremonies I’d turn the TV off. I didn’t want to see an awards ceremony because I didn’t want to get that image in my head and get ahead of myself because I needed to do the work."

Louganis noted the Games' positive impact for generations of children in Greater Los Angeles.

"[LA84] exposed a lot of kids to sports that they wouldn’t even think about, like kayak or cycling. That’s the thing that’s exciting about the LA24 bid is that so many of the facilities are already built, because the 1984 Games were so successful and the LA84 Foundation has been able to help with so much with youth health and wellness and outreach to youth through sports."

We also talked about Louganis' role as a pioneer and role model for the LGBT community, his 1995 book, and his perspectives on Sochi 2014 versus Rio 2016 as a potential "lightning rod for controversy" (my words) tethering LGBT athletes with the Olympics.

Louganis said he thought Brazil's Games would prove much more inclusive than Russia's.

"For Rio we can focus on the sports -- that's what it's supposed to be about," said Louganis.

The days leading to Sochi provided a whole different scene and conversation, he said.

"Everyone in the LGBT community was saying ‘boycott, boycott, boycott’ for Sochi and I was saying ‘no, don’t boycott because it hurts the wrong people – don’t hurt the athlete – [boycotts] hurt the athlete," said Louganis, who was not able to compete in the 1980 Moscow Games due to the U.S.-led boycott around the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Louganis explained he attended the Moscow Open Games -- held in the Russian capitol between the Sochi Olympics and Paralympics -- to support international friends and organizers in LGBT sports.

"I had some friends who are gay coming back from Sochi saying they felt safe and everyone was so welcoming," said Louganis. "My experience in Moscow was not Sochi -- it was totally different. 

"As soon as [many Muscovites] found out who was booking the rooms we were turned away from hotels. We had bomb threats at some of the events. We had to be very secretive about where we were holding some events. The military set off a smoke bomb at one of the events," said Louganis. 

"I was so impressed with the resilience (of organizers) and their courage to hold their event in Moscow in such a hostile environment," he added. 

Summer 2015 provided a more positive LGBT sports experience for the Olympic champion.

"Last year I was in Toronto for an LGBT sports summit," said Louganis. "I was so impressed with the Canadian Olympic Committee’s campaign of inclusion for one team, and that seems like the direction we’re going. That’s the reason I got connected with Athlete Allies, which is the U.S. national organization all about inclusion in sport. They are (promoting the theme that) we’re all in this together, that sports doesn’t have a label.”

When asked whether Olympic pin collecting ever was a thing, Louganis reminisced that during LA84 pin trading "really took off" and next to synchronized swimming pins (then a souvenir of a newly-introduced sport) diving pins were also harder to acquire but that he gave away more pins than he kept.

"I was too busy," said Louganis of pin collecting.

He also noted that a pin with his name and likeness is out there but he does not know who made them nor when.  

In addition to supporting LA24, Louganis shared excitement about the recent HBO Sports documentary telling his life story, "Back On Board: Greg Louganis" which was, in the weeks since our conversation, nominated for an Emmy.

When a future opportunity to speak with Louganis is presented, I'd like to inquire more about his bestselling book of the mid-1990s and his work with other Olympic bids or sponsors over the years. Might not hurt to delve into the 1980 Moscow boycott as well, if he is willing to discuss its impact on his career (I wonder whether Louganis ever met President Jimmy Carter and discussed the Moscow decision).

Louganis is very friendly, approachable and conversational, and speaking with him now ranks among the all-time favorite five-ringed conversations over the years. If there is only one regret of being starstruck by the initial conversation, I forgot to compare notes on spending time with Annie Leibovitz, who snapped the gorgeous underwater cover photo for "Breaking The Surface" the same year I met her in Colorado Springs.

It will be interesting to see Louganis' appearances with the awards presentation, future Road to Rio events, LA24 and other Rio 2016 Olympic activities play out in the weeks and months to come. 

Image credits: Mary Lou Retton/Wheaties via this site; Louganis photo by Annie Leibovitz via ArtNet; new 2016 Wheaties boxes via General Mills and; Louganis with Wheaties via his Facebook page. All other photos by Nicholas Wolaver

Sidebar: During brief research of Wheaties history for this post, I learned an iconic destination of my college days in Minnesota played a role in the cereal's history. In downtown Minneapolis along the banks of the Mississippi River at St. Anthony Falls, the Gold Medal Flour Mill towers over the scene, and its neon letters, when reflecting in the waters of the river, form a "heart" -- at least that's what guys my age told their dates while walking along the once-abandoned, now refurbished Stone Arch Bridge, which was a make-out spot during the early 1990s. The original name "Washburn's Gold Medal Whole Wheat Flakes" (from that smooch-inspiring flour mill) eventually evolved into "Wheaties," according to company lore

From left, Olympians Carol Lewis, Janet Evans, Greg Louganis, Carl Lewis,
Nadia Comaneci and Bart Conner. Photo by Nicholas Wolaver
LA24 Athetes Advisory Council with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti (center right)
and LA24 Chairman Casey Wasserman (center left). Photo by Nicholas Wolaver

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