By Scott McDonald | March 06, 2017, 4:58 p.m. (ET)
Laura Wilkinson competes in the women's 10-meter platform diving preliminary round at the XI FINA World Championships at the Parc Jean-Drapeau on July 20, 2005 in Montreal.

 

Laura Wilkinson retired from diving at age 30, just as she approached being twice the age of her competitors. Almost a decade later, the platform specialist returns.

Wilkinson, the last U.S. woman to win an Olympic individual diving medal when she won platform gold in 2000, is now 39 and planning a comeback that could lead to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

“When I retired in 2008, I was tired and felt beat up and needed a break,” said Wilkinson, who retired after the Beijing Games to try and start a family with her husband, former Minnesota swimmer Eriek Hulseman. “I still loved the sport but just needed time away from it, and we were ready to start a family.”

Wilkinson actually qualified for the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials in synchronized diving, but said she wanted to spend time with her young daughter, Arella. Laura and Eriek said they had trouble having their own biological child, so they had started an adoption process long before Arella was born. After the London Games, they went to China and brought home their newest daughter, Zoe.

Wilkinson dabbled around on the springboard and tried getting back into the pool, but then she got pregnant again. Their son, Zadok, was born in January 2014, and the family is going through the adoption process now to bring home a girl from Africa, maybe by the summer, Laura said.

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Wilkinson said she started seriously considering a return to diving after watching the London 2012 Games.

“In 2008 the platform field was phenomenal,” Wilkinson said. “In 2012 it was frustrating to watch, and in the back of my mind I thought I could still do this.”

In January 2016 she began training with Kassidy Cook, a 2016 Olympian in 3-meter who dives for Stanford and who also trains at the Woodlands, a suburb north of Houston.

“I dabbled around on the platform, and things started to come back quicker than I thought,” Wilkinson said. “I worked on dry landings, and those came back quick, too.”

Before getting back into training, Wilkinson had to get back in shape.

“Sometimes life gets in the way, and it took a while after we had Zadok,” she said.

Eventually, she found more energy, got back into the weight room and regained her youthful spirit.

Her longtime diving coach, Kenny Armstrong, persuaded Wilkinson to spend more time in the pool like a preschool kid would do. Wilkinson said now her time at the pool now is like her “quiet, mommy time” to get away from the hectic day-to-day life as a mother of three.

“My husband has a very flexible job, and he can stay home with the kids when he needs to,” Wilkinson said. “We’re all really committed to trying this and see what we can do.”

Wilkinson said she plans on competing solely on the 10-meter platform. The road back continues March 16-19 in nearby College Station, Texas, when she competes at the Texas Junior All Star Challenge. She said that since she trains so much at the Texas A&M Natatorium, the organizers created an open division so she can get into the groove of competing in a meet again.

“I might be only competing against myself, but the coach is helping us out and it’ll be good to be back in that environment,” Wilkinson said.

Wilkinson has covered Olympic diving as well as the Olympic Trials for NBC, and she said she’s ready for the next Games, but as a competitor.

“When I retired in 2008, I was 30 and considered to be very old as I was twice the age of my competitors,” Wilkinson said. “Most divers don’t go into their 30s, but I’m wired a little differently. This is fun and exciting, and Tokyo in 2020 is definitely in the realm of possibilities.”

Wilkinson said she got kicked off her high school diving team because the swimming coach called her “a waste of space,” meaning he was more interested in coaching swimmers. She went on to win a national championship for the Woodlands club team and was a two-time NCAA champion at Texas.

She won the 2000 Olympic Trials with a broken foot, and then came from behind in the finals to win the gold medal at the Sydney Games. She won the 2004 World Cup and was named USA Diving Athlete of the Year in 2000, 2004 and 2005.

But training as a 39-year-old mom is different than a teenager or 20-something.

“Training now is about quality of workouts rather than quantity of dives,” Wilkinson said. “I don’t get as much time in the pool because of the kids, so I also try to sharpen the mental aspect of diving.

“It’s refreshing to be a part of this again, and I still have passion for it. It’s a part of my life again, but it’s not my whole life anymore.”

Scott McDonald has 18 years experience in sports reporting. He was named the State Sports Writer of the Year in 2014 by the Texas High School Coaches Association. McDonald is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.