USA Diving News Wilkinson's career e...

Wilkinson's career ends with a thud but no regrets

Aug. 21, 2008, 1:08 p.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) Laura Wilkinson went through the same routine as always: She smiled at her cheering teammates, nodded to the referee, threw her chamois off the tower and whispered that familiar Bible verse.

Then she soared off the platform one last time.

The 30-year-old Texan wrapped up her career with a disappointing ninth-place finish in Olympic 10-meter diving Thursday night, an aching triceps making it difficult for her to stick the entries.

That was especially evident on her second dive, the toughest one performed by any of the 12 finalists with a 3.6 degree of difficulty. Wilkinson's takeoff on the back 3½ somersault was fine, but she was slow coming around on the last of her spins, spotted the water too late and went in with her legs crooked, creating a huge splash.

Wilkinson missed her next dive as well, essentially ending any hope of going out with a medal. She finished a staggering 135.90 points behind 15-year-old Chen Ruolin, the half-her-age gold medalist.

"Even though it wasn't the ending I wanted, I wouldn't trade the last four years for anything," said Wilkinson, the oldest of the finalists.

She did bounce back in the last round, posting a string of 8.5s that bumped her from 11th to ninth. A small consolation prize, to go along with a standing ovation from her teammates on deck.

"It was my last dive in the Olympics," Wilkinson said. "I almost lost it on the platform. To go out on a good note, at least, made me feel really good."

She went over to her longtime coach, Ken Armstrong, who wrapped his burly arms around her for a lengthy embrace - then hugged her again before finally letting go.

"She did phenomenally," Armstrong said. "I wouldn't change a minute of it. We can go back, do it all over again if she likes. That would be fine with me."

The highlight of Wilkinson's career came eight years ago in Sydney, where she stunningly won an Olympic gold medal on platform just six months after breaking her right foot in three places during training. One bone was protruding into the sole of her foot, forcing her to wear a kayak shoe on deck, taking it off only to dive.

After a fifth-place finish at the 2004 Athens Games, Wilkinson started pointing toward retirement. She had gotten married and looked forward to starting a family.

But, after winning the 10-meter title at the 2005 world championships in Montreal, Wilkinson's competitive fire was stoked. She decided to stick around for one more Olympics.

But the body couldn't hold up the stress of countless dives off the 33-foot-high board. Her left triceps was the biggest problem, robbing her of the confidence so necessary to carry out the furious spins and twists one must do before lining up the body to enter the water with as little splash as possible.

Wilkinson looked as though she had slipped out of a hospital for the final. Her triceps was wrapped with a bandage, and she wore a brace on her left wrist to help ease the shock waves that rip through her hands and arms when she hits the water.

"An analogy of what a (sore) triceps is like when you're trying to hold an entry on 10-meter is pulling a hamstring and having to run a 100-yard dash," Armstrong said. "How good are you going to be? When you don't have the capability of holding it, the confidence goes out the door. You're more worried about the injury than anything else at that point.

"She didn't hold one entry. She can't. And once you know that, you're being protective through the whole list."

As Armstrong talked in a corridor beneath the Water Cube, Wilkinson walked up behind him.

"She's up in age and she's been up there a long, long, long time," the coach said.

Wilkinson cocked her head and smiled.

"Are you saying I'm old?" she asked, feigning anger.

Refusing to use her triceps as an excuse, Wilkinson said the arm was the least of her concerns.

"I didn't land on my head enough for it to bother me," she quipped.

Wilkinson looks forward to having children and raising money through her foundation for a new training facility in the Houston area. The current pool used by the Woodlands Diving Academy is being razed at the end of the year.

"That will keep me busy, I'm sure," she said. "If you have any rich friends, send them my way."

Wilkinson leaves behind a once-dominant U.S. program that has fallen on hard times. Her gold in Sydney was the last medal won by an American diver; the team has only one more event in Beijing - the men's 10-meter platform - to avoid its second straight Olympic shutout.

Wilkinson said it's too early to assess the state of the team, which is counting on youngsters such as 15-year-old Haley Ishimatsu, who failed to make the platform final, to turn things around in 2012. But it's hard to find any evidence of the gap closing on the powerful Chinese, who have won a record seven gold medals here and need one more to finish off their sweep.

Even before the Americans arrived in Beijing, Wilkinson was denied a chance to compete in the synchro platform. Perhaps looking to the future, the selection committee chose Ishimatsu and another 15-year-old, Mary Beth Dunnichay, over Wilkinson and her partner, Jessica Livingston.

Wilkinson appealed, but lost the case in arbitration.

Any hard feelings were gone by the time she competed for the final time. Wilkinson preferred to savor the good times.

"Even though this wasn't my dream meet, we've had so much fun here and it's been a great Olympics," she said. "I'll remember that."