Los Angeles — Olympic champion Greg Louganis has been called the Baryshnikov of diving, a classical dancer in a controlled free fall. He takes the most difficult dives known to man and turns them into symphonies of motion, athletic yet elegant.
Other divers are mechanically as good, but few can execute such aesthetic masterpieces in the sky.
''When he does a dive perfectly, the crowd knows that it has seen something unusual,'' says Ron O'Brien, the US Olympic coach and Greg's mentor in Mission Viejo, Calif. ''It's nothing he does technically. What sets him apart is his ability to exert a tremendous amount of force and create the illusion that there is no force at all.''
Louganis approaches diving as a performing art as much as a competitive sport; it seems fitting that he has a drama degree with a minor in dance from the University of California at Irvine. In fact, after the Olympics Louganis may decide to plunge from the springboard to the stage, where, for once, making a big splash won't cost him any points.
For now, he likes winning - and has made it a habit. He also takes an interest in seeing others do well. ''I'm really rooting for everyone,'' he says.
Even so, he clearly sets the pace. In the three-meter springboard competition, where he has no peers, he won Wednesday by 92 points. That's a whopping margin, considering that only one point separated silver and bronze medalists Tan Liangde of China and Ron Merriott of the United States.
Now he turns his attention to Sunday's platform final, where a victory would make him the first diver to win both Olympic crowns since Pete Desjardins of the US did it in 1928.
Louganis faces stiff competition from American teammate Bruce Kimball and two Chinese divers. But no matter where he finishes, he has already secured a permanent niche in the sport. Some experts have called him the best diver of all time.
''There has not been anyone like him in 100 years,'' said a Russian coach at the world championships, ''and there won't be another like him in the next 100 .''
Actually, the sport is still 20 years short of its Olympic centennial. When introduced at the 1904 St. Louis games, it was called ''fancy diving.'' Today the ''fancy'' goes without saying; every dive has a wrinkle to it, and a few, like the 31/2 somersault and twisting back dives, seem to be wall-to-wall wrinkles. Louganis incorporates a higher degree of difficulty than almost any other diver in the world. And he does so with nary a splash.
His 99.0 is the highest point total ever received for a single dive. The score came on a reverse 11/2 somersault with 31/2 twists, which carries a 3.3 degree of difficulty. (Anything over 3.0 is daring, with 3.5 being tops and 1.2 the easiest. The degree of difficulty is used in the multiplication that determines the final score.)
Louganis says he believes even a reverse 31/2 is a safe dive, although a Soviet athlete lost his life attempting it at last summer's World University Games in Canada.
''Actually I feel diving is a very safe sport,'' Louganis says. ''It's just that it takes about a year to get a dive ready to use in competition.''
Speaking of competition, Louganis talks about there being more of it internationally than ever before.
The United States has traditionally been the world's top diving power, winning 37 of 44 Olympic gold medals from 1920 to 1968.
Other countries, however, have benefited from US expertise in the sport. In the early 1970s, the Soviet Union made a contribution by developing splash-free ''rip'' entries, which are the norm today. More recently, the Chinese have surfaced with some of the fastest-spinning, most acrobatic divers in the world.
The balance of power, though, still resides with the US. In the women's springboard competition, for example, Americans Kelly McCormick and Chris Seufert picked off the silver and bronze behind Canadian gold medalist Sylvie Bernier. And the US is expected to do well in the platform diving, with Louganis and Kimball in the men's competition and Wendy Wyland and Michele Mitchell in the women's.
Of course, Louganis is still the pacesetter for the entire sport. His takeoffs are smooth and powerful, and his execution unhurried. Because he springs very high off the board, he can concentrate on line rather than sheer execution.
He also appears to be in absolute control of every part of his 5 ft. 9 in. frame. And judging from his 26 national titles and the 1976 Olympic silver medal he won at age 16, Greg is a cool customer.
But even he still has some challenges. One is ''finding some way to keep mentally up for an hour and a half or more. We keep taking turns, so it's not like a figure-skating routine where your performance is very concentrated,'' Louganis says.
And then, even with his dramatic background, there's the inward struggle to overcome stage fright. ''Most people don't realize how frightening it can be up there wearing nothing but your skivvies and having seven judges looking on,'' he says. One way he musters confidence while preparing to dive, he says, is by silently singing ''Believe in Yourself'' from ''The Wiz.''