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Wilkinson grabs first US 10-meter Olympic gold in 36 years
By Bob Duffy, Globe Staff, 09/24/2000

 

SYDNEY -- The fourth dive on her program was the dicey one. It had given Laura Wilkinson fits forever; for crying out loud, she had broken her right foot practicing the blasted thing six months ago, and she hadn't even been in the water.

All she knew at the time was that this infernal reverse 21/2 pike had cost her any shot of making it to the US trials and qualifying for the Olympics . . .

Oh, the heck with it. Now here she was in Sydney, somehow, in the 10-meter platform finals, though she came into the climactic stage of the competition with no legitimate hopes of a medal. At least she had an inkling she was moving up in the standings - she had no clue how much because the sadists running the show refused to announce the overall scores - so why not just let it go? Of course she'd be nervous; that specially designed shoe she wore while struggling up the tower was a constant reminder that the injury hadn't healed completely, and even after she discarded it, threw it off the 33-foot summit, she couldn't shake the thought that she'd be soaring close to the tower and there was always the chance that she'd scrape the board again, maybe permanently damage the foot this time . . .

She nailed it! Son of a gun if Laura Wilkinson didn't swallow her fear and hit that one perfectly, just as she hit all five on her final list, and skyrocket from oblivion to the top of the world in diving, grabbing the first US 10-meter Olympic gold in 36 years.

"It just feels like a dream," she said.

It couldn't. Dreams never turn out this well. Hobbling 22-year-old nonentities don't make up 20 points against the most illustrious competition in the world, don't emerge from the depths of fifth place to dismantle the Chinese juggernaut - and do it all with only one foot in working order.

But Wilkinson did it, and nobody had to wake her up. That really was her in first place with 543.75 points, a scant 1.74 in front of silver medalist Lia Li Na and 3 3.6 ahead of Canada's Anne Montminycq, who took the bronze. Sang Xue, the leader after the semifinals, finished out of the hardware as China's 10-meter dynasty ended after four consecutive Olympic championships.

How did this sea change come about? The bottom line was that Wilkinson checked the semifinal scores and realized she had a chance, though it didn't seem to be anything more than mathematical.

"Usually after a semifinal score, you want everyone to be pretty close, almost like you're starting dead even," she said. "But I was about 20 points back. It's a pretty good deficit but it's not huge. So it was very feasible. I didn't know if it was possible at first, but I had nothing to lose."

With one proviso: "I knew," said Wilkinson, "I could not miss a dive."

She didn't. First came the armstand back double somersault with a half-flip. Then the back 21/2 somersault pike. And the third dive - a reverse 21/2 tuck - put her in first place for good, though this was merely a rumor to her; she had to rely on the body language of her coach, Ken Armstrong, to gauge her success.

"That dive's been going really good all summer," said Wilkinson. "I've gotten 10s on it several times and it's a pretty consistent one in practice. I knew I could do it. And after I came up, I saw Kenny's reaction and I knew it was a good one, so I was happy."

Then she was hesitant, because now it was time for the killer dive. On March 8, Wilkinson had been doing dry-land training, simulating dives off a wooden block onto a mat, when her foot cracked into the platform. She thought - hoped, really - that she'd just jammed it at first, but if that was true, why couldn't she walk? Five days later, the break was disagnosed.diagnosed.

The Olympic trials were scheduled for June 20, and surgery would cost her a chance to compete, not that she figured to be much of a factor with her foot still a wreck. So the doctors compromised, putting a cast on the injury as it was _ meaning Wilkinson was trying to negotiate midair acrobatics with three displaced bones and a fragment underneath that required Nike to modify a regular tennis shoe, providing enough of a cushion for her to climb to the platform. Barely.

She couldn't go in the water until four weeks before the trials; she'd feel frustrated and hopeless at times, but Armstrong wouldn't give up on her and refused to let her give up on herself. Nevertheless, the trials seemed to be sheer folly for this jerryrigged jury-rigged diver.

"At first, I thought I wouldn't have a shot to make the team at all," said Wilkinson. "Amazingly, that happened, and here I am."

And there she was, needing to make that perilous dive or the first three would be rendered inconsequential.

Splash.

"It's paiunful painful and it's nerve-wracking," said Wilkinson, "but we got through it."

Still, she couldn't relax yet. One dive remained, "and I knew I couldn't get too excited," said Wilkinson, because then something really weird might happen."

It did. She won.

Those are the nuts and bolts, but there is far more to the mechanics of this stunner. Wilkinson is deeply religious, dedicating every dive and competition to Christ. "There's no other way I could be here now except through Him," she said.

And she's always been a believer in inspirational stories, "triumphs overcoming tragedies," since back in the days when she was an aspiring gymnast, before she abandoned that sport at age 11 after seven years, then ran through a shopping list of alternatives until she settled on diving at 13.

"The thing is, I had a pool in my backyard with a diving board I used to do flips off," she said. "I have no idea why it took me so long to find the sport."

All that time, she'd find solace in the tales of people who overcame trials, "people like Olympic heroes who get over huge challenges to do something phenomenal. I love stories like that."

Now she may have authored an addition to the library.

"I was kind of hoping I could be one of the few," said Wilkinson. "I would think maybe it would rank right up there. I would hope maybe I could be an inspiration for somebody else."

She doesn't have a choice anymore.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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