2000 Olympics champion Laura Wilkinson of the United States has won a gold medal in every major world competition in platform diving. The 30-year-old earned a spot on the 2008 U.S. Olympic team despite being almost twice the age of some of her teammates. VOA's Teresa Sullivan reports Wilkinson hopes to retire after going out on a high note at the Beijing Olympics in August.
Eight years ago, Laura Wilkinson thought her Olympic dreams were over when she broke three bones in her right foot just six months before the Sydney Games. But the Texan decided to keep training and postpone surgery until after the 2000 Olympics.
Wilkinson's hard work paid off. In the final round of the women's 10-meter platform diving event, her stellar performance vaulted her from fifth place, past the dominant Chinese, to win the gold medal for the United States. She became the first American to win the event since 1964.
After her stunning come-from-behind victory in Sydney, Wilkinson went on to further glory, winning the platform gold medal at both the 2004 World Cup and the 2005 World Championship. By contrast, she also was on the U.S. Olympic diving team in 2004 in Athens that failed to win any medals for the first time ever at the Summer Games.
Wilkinson says she considered retiring from diving after the 2004 Olympics but had a change of heart.
"But not getting that medal just kind of really reignited that passion, and that want," she explained. "You know, I just did not quite make it to the medal stand and I think that was almost like a carrot being dangled out in front of me - that it just made me realize that, you know what, I can do better than this, I can do harder dives, I can do more, and so I just really got fired up again."
Diving off a 10-meter platform is like leaping off a three-story building. As you plunge toward the water, you must perfectly execute a set of complex acrobatic maneuvers before piercing the surface with hardly a splash.
Wilkinson's repertoire of dives includes some of the highest degree of difficulty in the sport.
Persisting through injuries and multiple surgeries, Wilkinson has found renewed passion for the sport she loves. Her fresh attitude is evident when she talks about her goals for Beijing.
"I definitely want to win a gold medal, but beyond that, I just want to do all that I can do. I want to do my hard dives really well. I want to just kind of see what my true potential in this sport is," she said.
The former Olympic champion also expresses a renewed sense of confidence.
"I feel great right now. I feel the strongest I have ever been," she said. "I have been through a lot of challenges, but being able to persevere through them, I just feel I have learned a lot - and I feel I can handle anything that comes my way."
Laura began diving at age 15 after years of gymnastics. She maintains a demanding training schedule. The long-time vegetarian last year also added chicken and fish to her diet to help build the muscle mass needed to complete more difficult dives.
Wilkinson trains for several hours each day, six days a week to stay in world class form. Her sessions include stretching, tumbling, trampoline work, strength training, and of course, lots of diving.
But Wilkinson says diving does not consume her life despite her passion for it. In January, she told the Houston Chronicle "diving is not who I am, it is what I do." The Olympic gold medalist balances her sports training with faith and family.
Wilkinson and her husband, Eriek Hulseman married in 2002. They live in The Woodlands, Texas, where Laura trains.
A devout Christian, Wilkinson says the five most important things to her are God; husband, Eriek; family; friends; and diving.
"My faith has been the most important thing to me, because I feel like if God brings you to it, he will get you through it," she said.
Before each dive, Laura is said to recite a Bible passage reading, "I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me," (Philippians 4:13).
Wilkinson plans to retire from competitive diving after the Beijing Olympics to start a family, and to help train the next generation of American divers through her new foundation.
"I started the Laura Wilkinson Foundation last fall to build a new facility for my team and my community, and that will kind of be my next big project," she explained.
Laura's foundation is campaigning to raise $11 million for a new state-of-the-art athletic and aquatic center in The Woodlands, Texas (near Houston).
But plans for children and fund raising projects will be on hold for a few more months because right now, Laura Wilkinson is all about diving and the Beijing Olympics.