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Women's Platform Diving Final, Sydney 2000

posted July 15, 2008

Nothing can derail an Olympic dream faster than a major injury. So when American platform diver Laura Wilkenson broke three metatarsal bones in her left foot (those are the long bones that connect the base of the foot with the toe bones) during dryland training only 6 months before the Sydney Olympics, meaning she wouldn't be able to dive again for about 2 months, it seemed her 2000 Olympic dream might be gone.

Many athletes would have simply started looking ahead to the next Games rather than face the task of trying to overcome the odds Laura was facing in March of 2000. If she was lucky she would have one month to practice real dives before the Olympic Trials in June.

Laura Wilkenson, however, is not a person who gives up easily.

Everyone who has ever had the opportunity to know or be around Laura confirms that she takes a back seat to no one when it comes to optimism. Dan Hicks, who covers Olympic swimming and diving on the NBC broadcasts of the Games, described her as, "One of the most positive people you will ever meet." So she was not to be deterred from pursuing her dream, even by three broken foot bones.

While her foot was healing, Laura worked to maintain her focus by spending hours visualizing, imagining doing her dives, trying to sustain her training mentally, so that when her body was ready to dive again, her mind wouldn't have to relearn everything too. She felt this would help her get the most out of the month of full training she would have left before the Trials.

As it turned out, her optimism wasn't fully rewarded in regards to her injury: when the doctors finally cleared her to resume diving, the trials were only three weeks away. Plus, the injury wasn't fully healed. She still experienced pain, both while diving and not. She had to wear an athletic boot around the pool, which she would only take off at the top of the platform just before diving, because walking barefoot felt, as she put it, "like walking on a rock." In fact, two months after the Sydney Games she finally had to have surgery on the foot to fix it once and for all. It must have taken a lot of optimism to not only dive with that pain, but to live with it.

In spite of all the odds against her, Laura was ready for the Trials: she came in first, and won her place on the Sydney team.

Injury and pain, however, were not the only obstacles that Laura Wilkenson and her optimism faced as she trained between the Trials and the Sydney Games, which took place in September of 2000. There was also the matter of trying to overthrow a dynasty.

While China's short-term dominance of swimming in the 1990s was clearly the result of cheating (as I discussed in moment #6), in other events the Chinese have achieved notable long-term success that doesn't seem to be tainted, but rather just the result of the combination of a large population to draw talent from plus years of hard work by the individuals. One of those events is diving.

There are four individual diving events in each Olympics: Men's and Women's 10 meter platform, and Men's and Women's 3 meter springboard. The Chinese had begun winning diving medals at the Los Angeles Games in 1984, where they took three of them, one of each color. In Seoul four years later they upped their total to 6 medals, two of them gold. In Barcelona and Atlanta, they won five medals, but they took the gold in three of the four events both times. They performed similarly at the World Championship events between Olympics. So it was no exaggeration to say that China had built a diving dynasty. Their divers tended to have consistently excellent form, enter the water with little splash, and make very few mistakes.

Since diving is a discipline where artificial strength enhancements are of little value - in fact, excessive muscle can actually be counterproductive - and is instead dependent largely on innate coordination and LOTS of practice, I give the Chinese full credit for their success in diving. I see nothing to suggest they haven't earned all of their medals, so they get the benefit of the doubt from me.

With the Chinese dominance, even a healthy Laura Wilkenson would have had her work cut out for her. Adding in a foot that was still causing her pain, the odds against her seemed overwhelming. Normal optimism would have gone no further than hoping for the bronze medal, behind the two Chinese divers. But Laura's optimism was anything but normal. Speaking about the task of taking on the favored Chinese, she said, "I like having the pressure...that's my favorite place to be, coming from behind, and I think it's time to dethrone the Chinese. I think it's our turn." Many athletes say things like that, but they don't always believe them. However, one got the distinct impression that Laura Wilkenson really believed her own words.

During the preliminary round, where five rounds of dives would trim the 40 woman Olympic diver field down to 18, Laura performed her dives well; but the Chinese were better. At the end of the preliminaries, China's Sang Xue led with 374.79 points. Her teammate, Li Na, was in second with 366.66. Then there was a drop of over 25 points to Canadian Anne Montminy's 339.93 score, followed by her teammate Emilie Heymans at 333.78. Laura was just behind Heymans in fifth place, with 331.20 points. Those five had established themselves as the class of the field during the preliminaries. The scores from the preliminaries combine with those from the semifinals to determine the 12 divers who advance to the finals, but only the semifinal scores carry through to the finals. So despite the great dives by the Chinese, there was no reason to panic yet. If Laura went from very good to excellent in the semis, she could still be right there in the gold medal hunt going into the finals.

Laura's optimism seemed to evade reward again, however, as she stumbled slightly in the semis. In the four dive semifinal round, unlike the preliminaries and finals, divers are limited in the difficulty of the dives allowed. They must demonstrate their mastery of more simple dives. Because the degree of difficulty is lower for these dives, so are the scores. With an excellent final dive, Laura moved herself back into fifth in combined score, and easily made the final 12. However, that was more due to her preliminary round scores. Since only the semifinal scores carried over to the finals, Laura began the last phase of the competition in 8th place. The top three, in order, were Li Na, Sang Xue, and Anne Montminy. Emilie Heymans was in fifth place. Because of the lower semifinal scores, Laura Wilkenson was beginning the finals only 13 points out of bronze medal position and 23 points out of first and second (the two Chinese divers were only .12 apart). It was still possible for anything to happen, but the way the Chinese were going - in Dan Hicks' words, "...drilling dive after dive after dive." - bronze still seemed to be the best realistic hope. Making things worse, Laura's list of dives (which each diver has to submit before the competition begins, so the judges know what dive is coming) had a lower combined level of difficulty than not only either of the Chinese, but either of the Canadians. This meant that Laura would have to get higher scores over the five dives just to not fall further behind the other four, and considerably higher to gain ground. So Laura continued to face big odds as the finals began.

For the five best divers, the order of diving in the finals would be: Wilkenson, Heymans, Montminy, Na and Xue. This meant Laura could put pressure on the others with great dives. As she stood on the platform for her first round dive and was announced, she responded to the crowd's applause with a huge smile. This was unusual, since most divers are completely focusing themselves on their dive and try not to even think about anything else. There was a huge TV screen at the end of the natatorium which showed close-ups of the divers on the platform, and Laura - who is an attractive young woman - quickly got the crowd on her side with her big smiles of acknowledgment, as she had also done in the prelims and semis.

Laura's first dive was an armstand back double somersault with a half twist, pike position, degree of difficulty 3.1. It was the highest difficulty dive on her list, so in addition to just getting off to a good start, that made hitting it well doubly important. She didn't hit it quite perfectly, but it was very good, and she scored 76.26 points on marks of 8-8.5. Heymans did her first dive a bit better, but it had a lower degree of difficulty, so her score was slightly less than Laura: 74.82. Montminy hit her first dive better still, getting 9s and 9.5s from the judges. It was also lower difficulty than Laura's, though, so she only beat Laura by about one point, with a score of 77.28. Na, doing the same dive as Montminy, got two more 9.5s and the highest score of the round at 78.12. Xue, performing a 3.0 dive, had a dive that looked good in the air and finished vertical, but her entry was somewhat sloppy and kicked up a fair amount of splash, so she got marks of only 7-8 from the judges, for a score of 70.20. After one round Na was still in first place, with Xue second and Montminy third. Laura, despite her very good first round dive, had slipped slightly farther away from both the gold and bronze. She had, however, moved up to fifth place. Emilie Heymans was now in fourth, so it had only taken one round for the cream to rise back to the top.

Laura's second round dive was a back 2 1/2 somersault, pike position, degree of difficulty 2.9. The crowd cheered her smile a little more, but again she didn't hit her dive quite perfectly, getting marks of 7.5-8.5 and a score of 69.60. She was diving well, but she needed more than that to get into medal contention. The two Canadians both outscored her on their second round dives, and moved a little farther in front of her. Na, doing her lowest difficulty dive of the competition at 2.7, got marks of 8-8.5, but a lower score than Laura with a 65.61. Xue, doing a 3.1 dive, went slightly past vertical, getting marks of 6.5-8, but with the degree of difficulty she still got a respectable score of 68.82.. So Laura had narrowed the gap slightly between herself and the gold, but the top 4 as a group had moved still farther away. It was not looking good for Laura Wilkenson at this point, to say the least. If things kept going this way, she would still be in fifth place at the end.

Laura mounted the platform for her third round dive to an even bigger burst of cheers and applause then the first two rounds. The crowd was with her, and wanted her to start moving up in the standings by having a great dive. There was good news and bad news in that regard. The bad news was that her dive for this round, a reverse 2 1/2 somersault, tuck position, had the lowest degree of difficulty on her list at 2.7. However, the good news was that it was her best dive. She had used it in the final round at the Olympic Trials, and had gotten six perfect 10s out of the seven marks. If she could hit it like that now, it would still be a huge score despite the difficulty factor.

She walked to the end of the platform, and concentrated for a few seconds as the crowd hushed. Then, raising her arms to assist her jump, she leaped into the air and out from the platform. She tucked into a ball and rotated twice in the air as she fell, then kicked out and reached for the water. As she reached it her body was perfectly vertical, and she entered the water with almost no splash at all.

The crowd erupted in a huge roar of approval, followed by sustained loud cheering and applause. They had gotten the great dive they wanted, and weren't shy about celebrating it. It was a sound that the Chinese and Canadian divers, whether they were watching the dive or not, had to hear and understand: Laura had really drilled one, and they would have to do well themselves to keep her at bay. It was just the sort of pressure that can make people's concentration crack just a little at the wrong time.

Laura got four 9.5s out of the seven marks, and a total of 75.33. The next diver up was Emilie Heymans. She was doing a 3.2 dive, so if she just hit it reasonably well the difficulty would keep her ahead of Laura. But the cheer from Laura's dive might have unnerved her, because she went way past vertical, and got marks of only 2-4 from the judges, for a score of 29.76. With that score it would now take a near miracle for her to come back and medal.

Montminy was next. She was doing a 2.9 dive, a back 2 1/2 pike, the same dive Laura had done in round two. She had dived well the first two rounds, and after the second round had moved past Xue into second place. But it seemed the pressure was getting to her as well, as her dive also went well past vertical, though not as badly as her teammate's. She only got marks of 5.5-7, for a score of 56.55. By less than a point, she was also now behind Laura Wilkenson.

Dan Hicks and his co-announcer Cynthia Potter were marveling at the two misses, and how Laura was now in bronze medal position. But the Chinese were next. Surely order would be restored now as they continued their relentless march to gold and silver.

Li Na and Sang Xue were only 17 and 16 years old respectively. They were already seasoned competitors, but this was the first Olympics for both. Perhaps that made them vulnerable to being affected by Laura's dives and the cheers of the crowd. Whatever the cause, Li Na, doing a reverse 2 1/2 tuck, difficulty 3.0, came up short of vertical on her dive. She got marks of 5.5-6.5. Her score was 53.10. By just over a point, she was now also trailing Laura Wilkenson.

It couldn't happen a fourth time, could it? It just wasn't possible for both Chinese divers to miss on the same round. They hadn't become a dynasty by letting things like that happen, after all! But Xue had struggled a bit on her first two dives, and the problems of the three previous divers now seemed to be contagious: Xue's inward 3 1/2 tuck, difficulty 3.2, went way past vertical. Her marks ranged from 3.5-6, for 47.04 points.

Laura Wilkenson had just seen lightning strike four consecutive times, and was suddenly sitting in first place after three rounds. It couldn't happen, but it had.

It was important now for Laura to keep the pressure on, and she did. To more enormous cheers, she hit her fourth round dive, an inward 2 1/2 pike, nearly as perfectly as her third round dive, getting marks of 8.5-9.5 for a score of 73.92. Of the other divers, only Montminy was able to beat that score, by only .48. Laura still had the lead, but now by only .21 over Montminy and 5.34 points over Na. Xue still had medal possibilities after recovering to post 73.26 in the fourth round, and was now less than six points behind Na.

Laura's last dive was her second most difficult, a back 2 1/2 with a half twist, pike position, degree of difficulty 3.0. Only Heymans had a higher level in the last round, and if Laura hit her dive well, Heymans' wouldn't matter. It was also the dive she considered her greatest challenge on the list. This was the kind of situation where true champions come through, and Laura did. She hit the dive almost as well as the previous two rounds, getting marks of 8-9 for a score of 75.60. Because of the difficulty this was her highest score of the finals, and put her in very good position: the other three divers who were still in contention would now have to hit their dives extremely well to pass her.

After Heymans (who now couldn't catch Laura even with all 10s) had gone, Montminy stepped onto the platform. She would need a score of 75.85 to pass Laura. To do that she needed to average marks of 9.5 from the judges. Her dive, a back 1 1/2 somersault, 2 1/2 twists, free position, 2.8 difficulty, was a bit slow in the air and kicked up some splash toward the tower. I held my breath as I waited for the scores to come up. When they were posted, they were mostly 8.5s. A score of 72.24. Montminy had finished 3.60 points behind Laura Wilkenson.

Then came Na, who had the better chance of the two Chinese divers. With her back 2 1/2 somersault, 1 1/2 twists, pike, 3.0 difficulty, she would have to average marks of 9.0 to get the 80.95 score she needed to pass Laura. As the leading Chinese diver on the platform at this competition, she was obviously capable of that and more. This was another of those moments when the great ones come through, and a country doesn't get to be a juggernaut in a sport without producing a whole string of great athletes. Could Li Na rescue the gold for China?

I held my breath again as Na prepared to dive. One way or the other this was a huge moment in the competition. Na leaped, turned, spun as she fell, kicked out and hit the water. It had been a beautiful dive, but at the very end it had slipped ever so slightly past vertical, and had kicked up a bit more splash than Laura Wilkenson's last three dives. A sick feeling settled into my stomach as Cynthia Potter said she rated the dive at 8.5-9. What would the judges think?

The scores came up: 8.5s and 9s. Very good, but not quite good enough. With a score of 79.20, Li Na had moved past Montminy, but had fallen short of Laura's total by less than two points.

I gave a huge sigh of relief. The gold seemed to be just about wrapped up. Xue had been farther behind, and would certainly have to be near-perfect to win, which was very unlikely. As Xue prepared for her dive, Dan Hicks informed me that I had been mistaken: for Xue to pass Laura, she would need to be ABSOLUTELY perfect: she needed six scores of 10.0 (the high and low scores get thrown out, so the seventh score didn't matter).

I got another sick feeling as a thought occurred to me: this really WOULD be one of those classic moments. This could be China's Mary Lou Retton moment! If Xue could somehow pull this off, she would be one of the all-time Olympic heroes. For just a second, it almost seemed to me that the moment was meant to happen that way. I held my breath one last time as Xue ran to the end of the platform and jumped off, wanting desperately to see just one little imperfection somewhere in the dive. I didn't have to look hard. The dive went well past vertical. Against all the incredible odds she had been facing for six months, Laura Wilkenson had won the gold medal.

She ran and jumped into the arms of her coach, Kenny Armstrong, and both of them sobbed unashamedly in pure joy. I cried along with them as the crowd enthusiastically cheered Laura's unexpected win.

A little later, pool side reporter Andrea Joyce interviewed Laura, and her first question was, "Put into words your emotions for us right now." Laura smiled and replied, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." Suddenly I was even happier about her victory: at that point all I knew about Laura was what I had heard on the Olympic broadcasts. They hadn't happened to mention that Laura Wilkenson, like myself, was a Bible-believing Christian. Fresh tears filled my eyes, and I pumped my fist and shouted, "A-MEN, sister, A-MEN!" Many athletes thank God in post-competition interviews, but not that many mention Jesus Christ by name, and I don't think I've ever heard another athlete thank Him by quoting Scripture (it was Philippians 4:13, by the way). I also suddenly had an insight into how Laura Wilkenson had maintained her optimism as she fought back against all the adversity: she had believed that if it was God's will for her, everything would somehow work out. Now, I'm not suggesting that God directly engineered her win. But that kind of faith helps tremendously to keep a person calm and focused in difficult situations. It was probably part of why the nerves of the Chinese and Canadians cracked during that third round, while Laura just kept calmly diving. The crowd support helped too, of course, but it was the love and friendliness born of her faith that had caused her to give those big smiles to the crowd in the first place, and get them on her side. So that was no coincidence either.

The lesson of Laura Wilkenson's surprise victory at the 2000 Olympics is that we are never alone if our hearts are open to God, whether our goal is Olympic gold or just getting through another day. If we just remember to put everything in His mighty hands, and keep a positive attitude, we can be sure that one way or another things will work out for the best. That assurance is worth far more than any medal.

As wonderful as Laura's win was, it didn't stop the Chinese diving juggernaut: they won the other three individual events to continue their streak of winning three of the four. They did it for a fourth straight Olympics four years later in Athens, where a completely healthy Laura Wilkenson finished in fifth place on platform. But she will be competing one last time in Beijing, and has been training harder than ever. Perhaps she can put a dent in the Chinese armor for a second time in 2008. Unlikely that a 30 year old diver could accomplish such a thing? You'll never convince Laura of that!

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