Laura Wilkinson wins Gold in the Womens 10m Diving Platform Final at the Sydney International Aquatic Centre on Day Nine of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games.
Laura Wilkinson is used to diving over hurdles.
The 42-year-old mother of four has leapt over many in her latest comeback—to make her fourth Olympic Games in Tokyo next year in platform diving.
To date, she is best known for the struggles she overcame at her first Olympic Games in 2000—when she moved from eighth place to first and won the first Olympic gold medal for U.S. women in platform diving since 1964 - on a broken foot.
No American has accomplished this feat since then, and Wilkinson hopes to do it again next summer.
Broken Foot, Almost Broken Dreams
Wilkinson was a 22-year-old college student when she qualified for her first Olympic Games 20 years ago. Already a two-time NCAA champion and the 1998 Goodwill Games gold medalist in platform diving, Wilkinson’s goal was not just to make the 2000 U.S. Olympic Team. It was to win an Olympic gold medal.
But six months before the 2000 Games, disaster struck. While practicing a dive out of the pool, she struck her feet on a wood block that she was jumping off. She fractured a bone in her left foot. But her right foot took the brunt: three broken bones, with one dislodged under her foot.
In an ideal world, Wilkinson would have immediately had surgery. But Olympic Trials were only three months away.
She opted for a cast.
“We had no idea if it was going to heal well enough to dive off of it,” Wilkinson said in a recent phone call from her home in Texas. “I was in three different casts for 10 weeks.”
In June, just two-and-a-half weeks before Trials, she was finally able to practice her dives off the10-meter platform again.
“It was crazy,” she recalled.
But the injury had an unexpected silver lining. It gave her a mental edge. She won Trials and realized that if she could get through that competition, she could get through anything.
The Memory of A Friend
Three months later, in September 2000, she was in Sydney at the 2000 Olympic Games facing a strong Chinese team. Her foot still hurt—and she had to climb the platform’s ladder wearing a tennis shoe to protect her mangled foot—but this is the meet she had trained for, it was now or never.
Wilkinson dove steadily through the preliminary round’s five dives, finishing fifth. But in the semifinals, she fell to eighth, 25 points behind the leader, 15-year-old Sang Xue from China.
Wilkinson’s first two dives in the final were steady, scoring 8 to 8.5. But she knew the divers ahead were scoring 9s. It was time to “put it all out there.”
But as the third round began, a minor disaster struck. The batteries died in Wilkinson’s portable CD player. She relied on music to calm her down between rounds, and she began to panic.
“Then I started laughing because I was panicking in this really important moment in my life,” she said.
Instead of music, she gave herself a pep talk. She was about to perform a dive that she had consistently done well leading up to the Sydney Games— a reverse two-and-a-half somersault tuck. As she remembered all those good dives, confidence returned.
She nailed the dive, “entering the water knife straight with barely a ripple,” wrote Mark Landler in the New York Times, and scored the highest points of the competition—four 9.5s.
Meanwhile, her competitors faltered badly. Wilkinson moved into the lead.
“Calm down,” her coach, Kenny Armstrong, reminded her. “You’ve got two more dives!”
Looming for Wilkinson was her fourth dive—the same one she was practicing when she broke her foot. Plus, for the take-off, she would have to push really hard off the ball of her broken foot.
“I knew that it was going to be the dive that it took,” she said. “I was kind of freaking out because I knew I had a shot now, I was somewhere in the hunt.”
And still, she had no Discman.
Looking for words of wisdom, Wilkinson walked over to Armstrong. Her coach told her to “Do it for Hilary.”
Hilary Grivich was a gymnast-turned-diver who had been killed in a car accident three years earlier. Grivich was on the U.S. gymnastics team that won silver at the 1991 world championships, but she missed making the 1992 U.S. Olympic Team. She hoped to make it to the Games in diving and was a friend and teammate of Wilkinson’s at The Woodlands Diving Academy in Texas.
At first, memories of Grivich sent Wilkinson reeling. Then she remembered one of their conversations where Grivich had talked about the importance of making an Olympic team.
“It dawned on me that this wasn’t just my dream,” said Wilkinson. “This was about so many more people who have this dream who never have this opportunity. I had all these teammates who helped me when my foot was broken. They were so supportive of me. I knew it wasn’t about me anymore. It became so much bigger.”
The fear and pain disappeared.
“It wasn’t pressure, it was this power behind me,” she remembered. “That made all the difference.”
Her inward two-and-a-half somersault pike was close to perfect. Li Na, another Chinese diver, recovered from her poor third dive and moved within two points of Wilkinson. But it was not enough. Wilkinson held off Na by 1.74 points and won the first gold for the U.S. in platform diving in 36 years.
In November 2000, she had surgery to repair her foot. Rather than rebreaking it, surgeons
removed the dislodged bone.
Wilkinson competed in two more Olympic Games—2004 and 2008. By then, platform diving’s degree of difficulty had taken off.
She added a flip or twist, or even two twists, to every dive, and she arrived at the Beijing Games with some of the hardest dives ever performed by women. Still, she finished ninth.
Wilkinson retired after the 2008 Games to start a family with husband Eriek Hulseman.
They now have four children, ages two to nine.
Inspired after watching platform diving at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, Wilkinson announced her comeback in March 2017—the same day that she was inducted to the International Swimming Hall of Fame.
Since then, she has had neck surgery, which kept her off the 10-meter platform for over a year. She had just returned to the platform when Covid-19 turned the world upside down.
Wilkinson spent the spring doing dryland training at home. She was back diving into a pool by mid-June but still does not have access to a platform.
And she and Hulseman are home schooling their four children this year.
When Wilkinson talks about the last six months, she laughs wryly—like all mothers who have been handed one more ball to juggle. But she is embracing the challenges. For Wilkinson, it’s all part of the journey.
“Yes, I have big goals and big dreams for Tokyo,” she said. “But the best part about this is I get to do what I love doing, and I have no regrets about that. Whether I make the team and do really well or not, I won’t regret this decision to go after it because it’s my passion and it’s what makes me feel complete.”
She also hopes to inspire others.
“For all the people who maybe think they’re too old to do something they love to do, don’t let society or culture decide that for you,” she encouraged. “If you want to do it, if you love doing something, do it.”