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Diving Back In: Now 42, Olympic Gold Medalist Laura Wilkinson Sees Olympic Postponement As A Gift

By Peggy Shinn | April 21, 2020, 5:20 p.m. (ET)

Laura Wilkinson and husband Eriek Hulseman play with their four children. 

 

Most 42-year-olds aiming for their fourth Olympic Games would probably be disappointed in the postponement of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.

Not Laura Wilkinson. 

The Olympic gold-medal-winning platform diver—now a mother of four—calls the postponement a gift.

“The gift of another year,” she said by phone from her home in Texas. At the same time, she is also heartbroken for the athletes who are peaking now or who might not have the ability to train for another year.

Wilkinson will be 43 in Tokyo, should she qualify for her fourth Games. But the extra year will give her time for the repetition she needs.

“I can actually do my dives for a full year, get consistent, get confident,” she added. 

Four years ago, when Wilkinson began her comeback, she probably would have given a different answer. Back then, she did not know the significant hurdles she would have to surmount in her comeback journey. And age was not one of them.

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Wilkinson’s comeback began simply enough. It was a few months before the Rio 2016 Games, and her longtime coach, Kenny Armstrong, invited her back to the pool. He thought it would give her some “me” time away from her three young children—all ages 5 and under at the time. So Wilkinson started swimming and diving on Mondays for an hour.

“It felt so good to be back,” she said. “Things started to come back quickly.”

Wilkinson had officially retired after the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing—her third Olympic Games. She had already accomplished everything there was in platform diving, becoming the first female diver to win all three of her sport’s major titles: Olympic (2000), world championship (2005) and World Cup (2004).

And her Olympic win in Sydney is legendary. She climbed from eighth to first in the 10-meter diving final, becoming the first U.S. woman to win gold in the event since 1964. And she did it with a broken foot. No American woman has won an Olympic medal in platform diving since 2000.

She finished fifth in the 2004 Games in Athens and ninth in Beijing.

After the 2008 Games, Wilkinson and husband Eriek Hulseman wanted to start a family. She was 30 years old and the traditional path was to quit diving once she had kids.

Their oldest daughter, Arella, was born in 2011. The next year, they adopted a daughter, Zoe, from China. In 2014, Wilkinson gave birth to a son, Zadok. 

But even as she chased around after her kids, diving was always in the back of her mind. Now, thanks to Armstrong’s encouragement, she was back in the pool. 

“Could I really do it again?” she asked her coach of a couple decades.

“You would not be crazy for considering it,” he replied.

A few months later, the two were in Rio—Wilkinson commentating for NBC, Armstrong coaching. They noted that the quality of women’s platform diving, in terms of degree of difficulty, had not progressed since the 2008 Games, when both agree that it peaked acrobatically.

During her long career, Wilkinson had competed through rapid changes in the sport. Between 2000 and 2008, platform diving’s degree of difficulty had increased by an order of magnitude. 

Diving went from “high jumping to pole vaulting,” Armstrong explained. “Instead of front three-and-a-half (somersaults), they were doing four-and-a-halfs. There’s inward four-and-a-halfs, there’s four-and-a-half twisters.”

Wilkinson had already made the transition, adding a flip or a twist to every dive. Now, she noticed that female divers were not pushing the envelope as much.

“Maybe I could still do my dives and have a chance,” she thought.

In making a comeback, Wilkinson was partly inspired by swimmer Dara Torres, whom she had seen win three silver medals at the 2008 Games. It was Torres’ fifth Olympic Games, and she was 41. Wilkinson read Torres’ book, “Age Is Just a Number,” “to get some insight into what that journey looked like for her.” But the two women have not yet spoken.

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Laura Wilkinson (center) shows off her at the Olympic Games Sydney 2000 in Sydney, Australia. 

 

In early March 2017, the same day she was elected to the International Swimming Hall of Fame, Wilkinson officially announced her comeback in a video titled #DreamChaser. She then entered a regional meet in Texas and won.

That summer, at the 2017 national championships, Wilkinson finished second and qualified to compete in the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Diving.

But in 2018, life became its own four-and-a-half with a twist. Wilkinson backed off training after she and Hulseman ran into difficulty adopting their fourth child, a daughter, from Ethiopia. They brought Dakaia home in March and when Wilkinson returned to the pool that fall, something was wrong with her arm.

“I was strong, I was very fit, but my arm was collapsing on every entry,” she said.

An MRI showed significant damage to the discs in her neck—wear-and-tear from years of diving off a 10-meter platform and hitting the water headfirst at 38 mph. Her surgeon told her that any small accident in or out of the pool might be catastrophic. Surgery was mandatory, even if Wilkinson never dove off a platform again.

On Dec. 26, 2018, Wilkinson had an anterior cervical discectomy and fusion. She spent the first six weeks of 2019 in a neck collar and could not run or jump—or chase her kids—for 12 weeks. 

At the end of March 2019, she was allowed to dive headfirst off a 1-meter diving board and was told to proceed as she felt like it. But her return to the pool was unnerving. She had a metal plate in her neck and had never known anyone to return to diving after a neck fusion.

“It was really nerve-racking,” she admitted, “because you don’t know how safe you are at that point. The fusion was still healing. That first entry was very scary.”

Wilkinson made it back to a 10-meter platform this past December. The 2020 Olympic trials were six months away. Would it be enough time?

In February 2020, she won an invitational meet in Orlando, Florida. A month later, she finished third at another meet, this one in San Antonio, Texas.

As she competed in San Antonio, news of the sports world shutting down began pouring in—the NBA canceled the rest of its season, Major League Baseball was pushing back opening day, and NCAA championships were quickly scratched off the calendar. Anxiety and uncertainty prevailed.

When news came that the Tokyo Games would be postponed, Wilkinson was relieved.

“Honestly, the postponement, as hard as it was to hear that news, to me—a 42-year-old mom of four—I was saying, ‘Yes, I have the gift of another year!’” she said. “It should be like, ‘Oh my goodness, I can’t keep up, I can’t do it that long.’”

But Wilkinson is keeping up, and physically, she is ready for what lies ahead.

“If it was just dryland stuff, Laura would win the Olympics right now,” said Armstrong. “Her takeoffs are better than anybody’s in the world.”

The extra year will give Wilkinson time to perfect her entries. Then, said Armstrong, “everybody is in trouble.”

“Laura has the acrobatic ability and she has some unbelievable balletic movements,” he added. “But the thing that I can’t teach and no one can teach is she knows she can do it. And if her body is right, then the rest of the field is in big trouble.”

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Laura Wilkinson practices a back dive. 

 

The coronavirus has added another hurdle to Wilkinson’s comeback journey. With no backyard pool, she is doing somersaults on borrowed matts in her backyard—“with my kids working really hard to coach me,” she said with a laugh. 

She also does high-intensity cardio or plyometrics with her diving team during daily Zoom meetings. They also do video studies and talk through goal-setting or fear or a related topic. Her kids are often nearby playing with Legos.

While it might be a setback in terms of Olympic-quality training, Wilkinson sees her quarantine workouts as a boon to her kids—now ages 8, 8, 6 and 4.

“They’re getting to see what I’m doing and what it takes,” she said. “We’ve been able to talk through that when you want something, look how hard Mommy is working. 

“This is what you have to do when you want to do something really important.”

An award-winning freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.

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