Will Sweeney and Cheryl Furjanic met while earning degrees in film and television production at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.
More than 10 years later, they began work on a documentary together that has culminated in a Sports Emmy Award nomination and their subject, Greg Louganis, appearing on a Wheaties box. For those counting, that is 28 years after Louganis’s fifth Olympic diving medal at the 1988 Olympics.
“The Wheaties box has turned out to be an important part of this journey,” says Sweeney, “proving that it is never too late to do the right thing.”
The journey began in 2011 when Louganis reemerged in the diving community as a coach for SoCal Divers in Fullerton, Ca. Louganis had been absent from the diving scene for more than 20 years.
Sweeney and Furjanic both read Louganis’s autobiography, Breaking the Surface, and realized that there was an amazing life story to be told.
“Everything we read about him was kind of vague as to why he didn’t have involvement in diving after his competitive career ended,” Sweeney says. “He had struggled to reinvent himself during his post-athletic career and didn’t get the endorsements that are heaped on most Olympic heroes. He didn’t invest in himself because he was gay and HIV-positive.”
Filming for the documentary, Back on Board, began in May of 2011 at a dive camp in Pasadena, Calif. The three years of filming paralleled the changing landscape for the LGBT community and LGBT athletes.
“So many things were happening in the LGBT community when we were wrapping up the filming and building the campaign to promote the film including Greg getting married to Johnny Chaillot and the same-sex marriage ruling by the Supreme Court,” Sweeney says. “After the film opened, the Change.org petition was started to get Louganis on the Wheaties box and everything exploded. The grass roots response was incredible.”
The film premiered in Washington in June of 2014 at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery Theatre and is still showing at film festivals in Europe. One of the things that audiences have reacted to in the film is Louganis’s financial situation.
“Cheryl Furjanic is crazy talented and she was able to gain Greg’s trust. He gave us full access to his life,” Sweeney says. “I didn’t anticipate so many people latching onto and connecting with his financial struggles.”
Sweeney, originally from Long Island, has worked on dozens of major motion pictures including “The Royal Tannenbaums,” “Rounders,” “Cider House Rules” and “The Squid and the Whale.” He says his background in film preservation helped with the archival footage from the Olympics and with old footage involving Louganis’ mother.
The journey of the documentary is now five years old and the experiences include critical acclaim at film festivals worldwide, the Wheaties box and the upcoming Sports Emmy Awards on May 10.
“We started out hoping to showcase Greg’s strengths and combat the myth that gay men are weak,” Sweeney says. “The Wheaties box is helping to put Greg back to commercial success and viability. The whole experience has been amazing.”