Bent on Winning Laura Wilkinson spun a Harry Potteresque tale while becoming the first U.S. woman since 1964 to win a platform diving gold

October 01, 2000

Laura Wilkinson emerged from the Olympic Aquatic Centre after the
semifinals of the 10-meter platform diving on Sunday afternoon,
carrying the burden of fifth place and a doorstop-sized book
under her arm.

"Good reading?" a reporter asked.

"Harry Potter," Wilkinson said. "The fourth one--The Goblet of

This is what literary folk call foreshadowing, because seven
hours later, Wilkinson not only performed gold-medal-winning
dives but en route to victory also spun a tale worthy of Potter.
This wasn't merely a story of the first gold medal in platform
diving by an American woman since Lesley Bush in 1964. It was a
fantasy writ large featuring Chinese giants and Quidditch-like
swoops and Muggles who didn't believe anyone who broke three
bones while in training for these Games could shock the diving

Mostly, it was the story of a very humble, very brave hero who
hails from The Woodlands, Texas, and who had earned eight
national diving titles while at the University of Texas. "This is
the Olympics," said Wilkinson's coach, Ken Armstrong. "Magical
things happen all the time."

The plot was simple enough. On March 8, Wilkinson broke the
middle three bones in her right foot in a freak accident: She
banged it on a piece of plywood equipment that she uses for
dry-land training. The next day Armstrong rapped on her
apartment door at 6 a.m. and announced that he didn't care if
her leg needed to be amputated because she'd worked too hard not
to be an Olympian. Wilkinson eschewed surgery, which would have
kept her off the diving board for several weeks. Instead, she
practiced six hours a day with various types of casts, mounting
the platform and visualizing going through her takeoffs and
come-outs for every dive on her list. After the cast was removed
10 weeks later, Wilkinson was diving again, practicing her
somersaults and twists and refreshing muscle memory. In June she
won the Olympic trials. "The broken foot was a godsend," said
Armstrong, her coach at The Woodlands Diving Club outside
Houston. "I had never seen that sense of urgency in her."

The 22-year-old Wilkinson projects preternatural calm. Before
her dives in Sydney she was the only Olympic 10-meter performer
to acknowledge with a smile her family and friends cheering
lustily in the stands. Her beaming face was an open book. Of
course, her mettle would be sorely tested, but she grabbed the
lead on the third of her five dives in the final, a reverse
2 1/2 somersault that's in her diving wheelhouse--she had four
9.5s--while the heavily favored Chinese, Li Na and Sang Xue,
inexplicably did world-class belly flops. Then Wilkinson stole
the competition on the fourth dive, the most difficult one for
her, an inward 2 1/2 somersault she had butchered in the
prelims. Just before she mounted the 40 steps of the tower,
Armstrong impulsively blurted, "Do it for Hilary."

Hilary Grivich, Wilkinson's former club teammate and friend, died
in a car accident in 1997. The inspired Wilkinson, as always,
recited Philippians 4:13--I can do all things through Christ, who
strengthens me--and then nailed her dive, scoring all 8.5s and 9s.

She held off Li by only 1.74 points, a remarkable conclusion to
Laura Wilkinson and the Medal of Gold.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MANNY MILLAN FINISHING TOUCH Wilkinson, who was in fifth place after the semis, was in perfect form at the end.