Eriek Hulseman and Laura Wilkinson Hulseman with daughters Arella (left) and Zoe (right) pose for their 2012 Christmas photo.
More than four years after her third and final Olympiad, one of the most decorated divers in American history recalled the words of her former coach.
“You can’t stick your toe in off the 10-meter (platform) to see if the water feels good,” Laura Wilkinson said, reciting the line she learned from mentor Kenny Armstrong. “You have to take that step.”
When applied to the sport in which she excelled for 15 years, it’s a literal expression. Now that Wilkinson’s most visible platforms are as a writer and speaker, it’s strictly a metaphor.
She repeats it today, while describing her long-ago submersion into the spirituality that’s inseparable from all else in her life. That includes the great leap of faith she took with husband, Eriek Hulseman, following her last competitive dive at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.
Like anyone else, time was catching up to Wilkinson in the summer of 2008. The body that proved so resilient eight years earlier in Sydney, where Wilkinson withstood a broken foot to win Olympic gold, was wearing down from her regular three-story descents into the depths. Her hometown newspaper, Houston Chronicle, observed from Beijing that “miles of athletic tape” wrapped Wilkinson’s wrists and “aching triceps.”
As the owner of two NCAA titles at the University of Texas, 19 national championships and numerous international victories, starting with the 1998 Goodwill Games, Wilkinson was ready to pursue a much different milestone with Hulseman.
“We wanted to be parents,” she said. “(We) had waited a long time, because I was still diving.”
Yet, their wait was far from over. After months of trying, unsuccessfully, to start a family, they decided to adopt.
“My brother (Rob) was adopted, so it was always something I considered,” Wilkinson said. “We really had some heart-to-heart’s with this. We thought, well, maybe we should just start with the adoption (process), knowing it may take a long time.”
They began in September 2009 where Laura’s career had ended, by looking to China. Soon thereafter, the Chinese government, which for three decades has enforced a one-child policy, relaxed restrictions on domestic adoptions. As a result, according to Wilkinson’s understanding, it could take at least six years between completing paperwork and receiving a referral for a healthy child.
Then, about a year after starting the adoption process, Laura learned she was pregnant. Still, with daughter, Arella, on the way, Laura and Eriek didn’t dismiss the idea of adopting. Informed by experience — namely Laura’s upbringing — and invested in faith, they proceeded as planned.
Wilkinson herself was born a remarkable nine years after her mother, Linda, adopted Rob. She and her brother were, Linda liked to say, “Miracle Children.” To Laura, it seemed quite natural to raise both biological and adopted children.
After welcoming Arella into their world, Laura and Eriek asked officials last February to add their names to the so-called Waiting Child list. They welcomed a child with special needs.
“It was a hard process,” Wilkinson admitted. “We had to be really, really honest. We talked to our doctor a lot about it, to see what we could handle at this point, being new parents. We really wanted the kids to be close in age, so it looked like a good route for us.”
Laura explored that path in depth. She read books and blogs, gleaning what others learned first hand. Sometimes the hard way, considering that medical histories — sometimes accurate, sometimes not — of Chinese orphans vary greatly.
“I did as much research as I could,” Wilkinson said. “I wanted to see what (other people’s) situations were like, and what things to be aware of.
“I tried to read everything to prepare myself for good, bad or indifferent; to know how to handle it.”
On Aug. 30, an official referral arrived in the mail. Included was a short profile of soon-to-be 1-year-old Zoe Xiu. She was diagnosed with microtia, a congenital ear deformity, on the left side. Laura and Eriek had 72 hours to decide if the baby girl in the attached grainy photos would someday be part of their family portrait.
“The minute we saw her, it was just like, ‘Of course, this is our child,’” Wilkinson said. “It was all that we had been waiting for. We had been praying for three years, and we had no idea who she was. ‘This must be her.’”
Three months later, Laura and Eriek left Texas for Changsha of the Hunan province. They went to meet the newest member of the family. Their flight into the unknown took 13 hours. It was a very short leg of an amazing, yet uneven — and unending — emotional journey.
Much of which Wilkinson describes beautifully on her blog. Sharing moments of joy and trepidation, she underscores her experiences with reflections on faith. Through it all, Wilkinson reveals a wonderful sense of humor. Even when writing of uneasy times. It’s no different when she speaks of them.
“It was crazy. (Zoe) was terrified of us,” Wilkinson said of their initial encounter, before chuckling. “She saw this lady with curly, crazy hair. She tried to bolt for the door. She was from a very rural area. I don’t think she’d ever seen any white people.”
Zoe kicked and screamed until, eventually, in Wilkinson’s words, “she just passed out.” But before leaving for her new home, Zoe experienced another health issue. In her orphanage, she twice contracted pneumonia. Readying to come to America, Zoe became heavily congested.
Laura and Eriek were now the terrified ones.
“When we would lay her down, she would choke on her phlegm, I think, and she couldn’t breathe,” Wilkinson described. “A couple of times she threw up and then she started running a fever.
“We didn’t know if there was something else wrong. There was nobody we could see there. We were on our way to the airport, she threw up on me and started running a fever.”
Zoe slept most of the nearly 20 hours required to reach Houston. Upon arrival, Laura and Eriek brought her to a local health clinic, before transferring to Texas Children’s Hospital for a checkup. By the time they got home, Laura and Eriek had been deprived of sleep for all but a few of the last 60 hours.
Almost immediately, their youngest daughter revived. Thanks to their oldest. Late in the adoption process, Wilkinson sent Zoe various care packages. Among the contents was a family photo album. One picture, in particular, became Zoe’s constant companion. It featured Arella.
“As soon as she saw my other daughter, Arella, it was like everything was okay,” said Wilkinson, still marveling on a recent Monday, as the two sisters, who are six months apart in age, napped. “She was just all smiles.”
Remarkably, just two weeks after she barely crawled, Zoe started walking. It was — if allowed a stretch — almost miraculous for the adopted daughter of a Miracle Child. But as Wilkinson attests, on her blog and over her phone, life rarely adheres to the textbook or produces the storybook.
“It’s never all babies and roses in any family, biological kids or adopted or however you get your kids,” Wilkinson stresses. “There’s ups and downs, that’s how life is. And people looking into the adoption process need to remember that.
“It’s not just, ‘Oh, bring her home and (live) happily ever after.’ That’s not real for anyone. But it’s definitely a blessing and a joy, and our house is so much more full with her here.”
So too are Wilkinson’s days, caring for two daughters inside that home, while pursuing a cause. She runs the Laura Wilkinson Foundation. For now, it’s devoted to building a facility to support and expand diving. In time?
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we did something else for orphans, helping out in some way,” Wilkinson said. “I don’t know what that looks like yet. But I definitely think we’ll get involved in some way, because it’s such a passion of ours. I don’t know how you can go through the process and not be passionate about it.”
After all, putting a twist on an old expression, you can’t just stick your toe in the water. You have to dive right in.
Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Bob Socci is a freelance contributor for TeamUSAorg. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.