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David Pichler.

The openly gay national champion diver can't break free from a fight with his former coach

Eight-time national diving champion David Pichler plunged into a whirlpool of controversy two years ago when he accused his former coach Ron O'Brien of systematically harassing him and his boyfriend, Steven Guiffre.

Having just made the 1996 Olympic team, Pichler took to the mike at a news conference and charged that O'Brien, the man who coached Greg Louganis to Olympic fame, was guilty of more than the typical unsportsmanlike conduct. According to Pichler, O'Brien and his son, Tim, had employed various methods of verbal and physical intimidation to unsettle Pichler and undermine his burgeoning career--just to get back at him for leaving the O'Brien camp in 1995.

Shortly thereafter stories began to appear in newspapers that Pichler was being abused by his boyfriend. Afraid of what officials might do, Pichler waited until after the Atlanta Games to defend Guiffre--whom he still calls "the best thing that ever happened to me"--and accuse the O'Briens of fabricating the abuse story and planting it in the media.

The Advocate has visited Pichler's stow twice, the first time as part of a January 1997 coming-out profile of diver Patrick Jeffrey, who now serves as Pichler's coach. In August of that year The Advocate returned to the stow, having a skeptical Louganis, a friend of the O'Briens, interview Pichler.

A year later, Pichler says, the harassment is continuing, with help from U.S. Diving--the sport's governing body--which is headed by Todd Smith, a long-time associate of Ron O'Brien, who, coincidentally, serves as the group's technical director. Calls placed to both Smith and O'Brien for this article were not returned.

"They play little games; it's just too many things too often," Pichler says. A few months ago he threatened to sue U.S. Diving to assure that his monthly stipend--a regular fee paid to most Olympic-level athletes to help with training costs--is delivered on time. Furthermore, Pichler contends that the group has failed to provide crucial information to him about training camps or the steps necessary to apply for certain international diving competitions.

Meanwhile, he says, the O'Briens have resorted to legal threats of their own, telling Pichler to keep quiet or risk a defamation suit. But a defiant Pichler countered with his own threat, inviting the news media to interview him about U.S. Diving and the O'Briens. "Now their big thing is to sue," Pichler says. "This happens before every meet, but I've never said anything I don't have proof of." He notes that a lawsuit has never been tossed his way. "I'd love it if they let me sit on a court stand and let me tell my story," he says.

As irritated as Pichler is about the situation--he now attends competitions with a personal security guard--he also feels validated by recent stories concerning other students who have spoken out about the O'Briens and left their diving camp: "Steven and I are friends with most of the athletes, and they know all the stories [the O'Briens spread] are lies at this point. Time has proved the whole situation."

But time has also taken its toll on Pichler, who notes that only now is he beginning to see how the "wear and tear" of the past few years has affected his psyche. The past several diving meets have been some of his worst in four years. At the indoor championships in April, for instance, he failed to make the world team for the first time since 1994, forcing him to miss this summer's Goodwill Games.

"Before, I had my guard up because I had to," Pichler says. "The more they tortured me, the more I was able to handle it and let it work to my benefit. Now I've let my guard down a little bit. And when something happens, I'm so tired and over it, it starts to affect my performance."

But the national outdoor championships are in August, and Pichler claims he's imbued himself with a new attitude that he hopes will carry him through next year's Pan-American Games and the 2000 Olympics. "I'm going to take my feet back to the top of the podium," says Pichler, who, now 29, realizes the next couple of years may be his last: to compete. "I've made the commitment. You just hope your body holds up."

Ghent is a reporter with Legislate, an on-line service of The Washington Post.
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Title Annotation:Sports Heroes: Diving
Author:Ghent, Bill
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Aug 18, 1998
Previous Article:Muffin Spencer-Devlin.
Next Article:Bob Paris.

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