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What would possess a 43-year-old mother of four with a titanium plate in her neck to dive headfirst off a 33-foot-high platform into a swimming pool, hitting the water at nearly 35 mph?
When that Mom is Laura Wilkinson, it makes more sense.
Wilkinson has won all three major diving world titles — an Olympic gold medal in 2000, a world championship in 2005 and the World Cup in 2004. After nine years in retirement, and recovered from a double cervical fusion surgery, she is back in training in hopes of reaching the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.
No American woman has placed at the Olympics in the 10-meter event since Wilkinson, who lives in Spring, Tex., near Houston. As part of her preparation for the Olympic Trials, she was one of 198 divers competing this weekend at the Coral Springs Winter Invitational, an opportunity to practice her dive list and compete during the pandemic.
Although she has already made history, she is not satisfied.
“Pushing the boundaries is something that’s always been encouraging to me,” she said by phone Wednesday while playing with her children at a Broward County park. “Hey, how far can I go? What can I do? Being a mom of four kids, I’m not going to do something to put myself in massive danger. I’m going to be wise about it. But this is a really cool opportunity for me to push my own limits and also encourage people to try things.
“Just because society says you can’t do something at a certain age doesn’t mean that’s true. People have always told me, `Oh, you should be done with diving after you win the Olympics or after you finish college. You should move on with your life’. But some people are not built to do that. We all have different callings and gifts and different desires in our lives. I think it’s ok to do that. If you have the skills and passion and a supportive family around you, it’s a pretty awesome opportunity.”
Her Olympic win in Sydney was dramatic. She was the first U.S. woman to win gold in the event since 1964, ending a long streak of Chinese winners. Making it more impressive was the fact that she won with a fractured foot.
She went back to the University of Texas and graduated in 2001, got married to swim coach Eriek Hulseman in 2002, and continued her diving career. She finished fifth in the 2004 Olympics in Athens and ninth in Beijing.
Although her performance in Beijing was not how she envisioned ending her career, Wilkinson was 30 and eager to start a family, so she retired. Their daughter Arella was born in 2011. The next year, they adopted another daughter, Zoe, from China. Three years later, Wilkinson gave birth to a son, Zadok. In 2017, they adopted daughter Dakaia from Ethiopia.
“My brother was adopted, so that was always something I was open to,” Wilkinson said. “Our family grew crazy fast after a long time of trying.”
She continued to dabble in diving for fun when her children were very young and said it “felt like home” to be back at a pool. She worked for NBC at the 2012 London Olympics and the 2016 Rio Olympics. She started itching to compete again after the Rio Games, and six months later had her full 10-meter dive list back.
By early 2017 she was training full time, aiming at the Tokyo Olympics, which were scheduled for 2020. That summer, she finished second at the U.S. Championships, which qualified her to compete in the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials.
All was going well until Fall 2018, when she felt discomfort and weakness in her arm. An MRI revealed degenerative disc disease in her neck, which was pinching her spinal cord, caused in part by the wear-and-tear of a lifetime of diving. She was told that whether she continued diving or not, she needed the surgery to be able to do everyday activities, and that if she didn’t, a minor car accident or fall down the stairs would have been very dangerous.
She underwent the fusion surgery on Dec. 26, 2018 and spend six weeks in a neck brace.
In March of 2019, she was cleared to dive off a 1-meter board. It was “kind of scary and nerve wracking to go headfirst into the pool at first,” she said. “It took a while to get comfortable again and not be so stiff. There was a lot to work through, so it took me a full year to get back on 10-meter.”
In February 2020, she won a meet in Orlando, and she finished third a month later in San Antonio.
Then COVID-19 hit and most aquatic centers closed their doors, including those at Texas A&M and the University of Houston, where Wilkinson had trained. She struggled to find a 10-meter training site. She worked out on springboard, and occasionally on a 5-meter platform. But she did not have access to a 10-meter platform until this week in Coral Springs, and she used the meet for training, competing in only four of five dives in the preliminary round.
The postponement of the Tokyo Olympics from July 2020 to 2021 was a blessing in a way, she said, because it has allowed her to get fully healthy.
“It’s really nice to be in Coral Springs because there’s a full set of platforms, so I got to go off 7-meter, 10-meter, so I’m excited to feel like I’m getting back into it again,” she said. “It’s been an interesting road. This week has been important for me to get some impacts off the top and be in a meet atmosphere again. It was fun to be nervous and excited again and remember how to compete.”
“I just feel like it’s a gift to be able to do it again. It’s been a really cool adventure. I know I only have so much time to do it before I have to hang up that suit.”
Wilkinson, with the help of her husband, has been able to juggle diving and parenting. Arella and Zoe are 9, Zadok is 7 and Dakaia is 5. They are her biggest cheerleaders. She says the decision to make a comeback has proven to her that mothers’ dreams do not have to be deferred.
“When I first became a Mom, it felt like you have to put your dreams down and be a Mom, like your stuff is over and you just live for your kids,” Wilkinson said. “And I think that’s so messed up now that I’m doing this. I can go after my dreams and my kids can be part of that with me. I want to encourage other moms who might be on that same train of thought, no, don’t exclude your stuff from your life. Let your kids watch you go through the ups and downs. Don’t just tell them how to handle struggles, show them.”