Of the Citius, Altius, Fortius, this was the Altius. In a sweat-soaked carnival filled with a Dream Team, a Thorpedo and Our Cathy, the Olympic zenith was the 10-meter platform. There was no more spectacular vantage point, not even from the seats reserved for IOC members. "It's kind of like a mountain," U.S. diver Laura Wilkinson said. "The view is really neat. The people look so small from up there. You can't see faces, but you can pick out national flags and T-shirts."
The 10-meter platform looks like something your mother told you to stay away from. Don't go so near the edge. Just because Laura dove off a 10-meter platform, does that mean you have to do it? However, it is not only 10 meters that bedevils those who dare to look down and not out. The diver is not flinging herself off a rocky ledge and into a murky lake. These are translucent waters, right to the bottom, so add another five meters to account for the depth of the Aquatic Centre pool, then roughly another meter and a half to gain the perspective of the diver's eyes—about 54 feet in all.
There is an old expression among platform divers: ten meters up, 100 feet down.
Forty steps led from the pool deck to the platform. Some divers fairly bounded up them in anticipation, others trudged up one at a time. While one diver would wait at the top for a signal to commence her dive, two would stand a level below and two more would idle beneath them on a landing eight steps above the deck, thrusting their arms over their heads, rehearsing their dives in their minds. The tower looked like some kind of a Rube Goldberg contraption, divers moving mechanically along a conveyer until it was their turn to plunge and twist and somersault into a crystalline abyss.
Wilkinson's climb looked a little different from that of the other 11 divers in the 10-meter final. On her right foot she wore a kayaker's boot, for protection from the metal steps and the unforgiving concrete of the platform. Wilkinson had broken a bone in that foot in three places during training last March; she was practicing an inward 2� somersault on dry land when her foot hit the wooden board. She delayed surgery—the foot would have to be re-broken and set after the Olympics—and soldiered on.
Sometimes she wore a T-shirt bearing the message PAIN IS WEAKNESS LEAVING THE BODY. Her coach, Ken Armstrong, never asked her about the foot, because that might have injected something negative into the cheerful landscape of the 22-year-old Texan who has such a grand perspective, even at sea level. During the U.S. nationals in August, Armstrong was massaging Wilkinson's feet. He thought, O.K., a broken bone, a trifle. His hands then found this fused mass on the bottom of the foot. It felt like a knuckle.
Even if she had been healthy, Wilkinson would not have been favored in Sydney. A pair of Chinese divers, Li Na and Sang Xue, were, and they had dominated throughout the preliminaries and semifinals. They frolicked as much as they competed, displaying a grace so practiced that it had blurred into instinct. Before dives they would gambol on the edge of the platform as comfortably as they might flop on a living room sofa. Then they would jump higher and spin faster and tuck tighter, slicing through the surface 1.5 seconds later with a hiss instead of a splash. They were blending into the water instead of displacing it. They looked bulletproof.
But Wilkinson took it one step at a time. When she reached the top of the platform, she removed the boot and hurled it to the deck. Then when her name was announced, Wilkinson did a curious thing—at least by the standards of her game face: She looked out from the top of the mountain at all those American flags and acknowledged the cheers with a smile.
Wilkinson won the 10-meter platform on this Sunday night, rising from fifth after the semifinals to become the most implausible American heroine of these Olympics. Afterward she stood on the medal podium, waving, aglow with accomplishment. Maybe the altitude was less imposing, but the view was even more stunning.