It was looking bleak for the divers from the USA at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. The traditionally strong men’s team had not medaled in the 10-meter platform or the inaugural synchronized platform diving event. The American women were also shut out of the inaugural synchronized 3-meter springboard competition.
Laura Wilkinson of Houston Texas was on that synchronized swim team that finished fifth, adding to Team USA’s diving woes. But some felt that there was a chance as the Chinese, the powerhouse over the past four Olympics, had entered two very young divers, Sang Xue (15) and Li Na (16). It was thought that they could break under the pressure.
They didn’t. In fact, Sang and Li were 1-2 going into the final round. Wilkinson was fifth, and considered way behind. When asked after the semi-finals what it would take to beat the Chinese? “My best,” said Wilkinson (in an AP article). “I need to hit all my dives.”
It was only six months before Olympics that Wilkinson broke three bones in her right foot. And while she was able to recover in time to win a spot on the Olympic team by winning the US diving trials, she had to wear a big rubber kayaking boot to protect her foot as she climbed the 10-meter platform. She told reporters that the broken bones would rub against each other in a way that made it feel like she was walking on a rock.
So imagine, you’re way behind in fifth, an entire country is pinning its hopes on you. And you have to block out the foot as well as the expectations.
Which is what Wilkinson did.
In the final round, her third dive – a reverse two-and-a-half somersault – the 22-year-old split the water with nary a splash. Even with a perfect dive, Wilkinson needed help. And she got that. Li and Sang both had poor third dives, and Wilkinson suddenly was in the lead, which she clung to, to the very end.
Wilkinson unexpectedly won the 10-meter platform gold medal, ending a 36-year drought for US women’s platform diving.
Wilkinson would go on to win the 10-meter platform competition at the 2005 World Championships, and compete in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, but she will forever be remembered for her gutsy come-from-behind victory in Sydney.
In honor of her accomplishments, the International Swimming Hall of Fame (ISOH) announced on March 2, 2017, that Wilkinson will be entered into their Class of 2017.