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 Fire."
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 world.
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� 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� 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.