Diver Laura Wilkinson Defies Age, Odds in Making U.S. Olympic Trials Finals

It's hard to imagine one of the best divers in the world getting kicked off their high school's swimming and diving team because they were a "waste of space." Laura Wilkinson said that's exactly what her coach told her she was, and ultimately why she had to leave her school's team in the greater Houston area in the mid-1990s.

Shortly afterward, she became a national club champion in The Woodlands and then a two-time NCAA champion at the University of Texas. She won the 2000 Olympic gold medal on the 10-meter platform despite having three broken bones in her right foot, and she eventually retired in 2008 to start a family.

"When I retired in 2008, I was tired and felt beat up and needed a break," Wilkinson said in 2017. "I still loved the sport but just needed time away from it, and we were ready to start a family."

Laura Wilkinson
Laura Wilkinson, shown competing in the women's 10m platform diving competition at Centro Olimpico Juan Pablo Durate on August 6, 2003 at the XIV Pan American Games in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, is now in the finals of the Olympic Team Trials with a shot to make Team USA for the Tokyo Summer Games. Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

She's worked for NBC as a broadcaster for Olympic diving trials and the Olympic Games itself over the last two Olympic quads.

After the 2012 London Summer Games, she got the itch to get back onto the platform. She slowly worked her way back into shape while growing her family to four children with her husband, Eriek Hulseman.

She didn't have a place near her home in Spring, Texas, to practice diving into water, so she relied on lots of indoor training with dry landings. The closest place to train off a 10-meter platform into water was an hour away at the Texas A&M University natatorium.

Then, the COVID-19 global pandemic that began in March of 2020 threw another wrinkle into her training in preparation for the Olympic Diving Trials to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games. Practice facilities began closing, and so were local schools. That meant raising four small children at home and having limited workout time, space and privacy.

Now, with the U.S. Diving Olympic Team Trials happening in Indianapolis, Indiana, Wilkinson finds herself back into the finals. She finished ninth in the semifinals on Wednesday night, and she'll dive Sunday night for a chance to make it to Tokyo. The men's 3-meter springboard finals will begin at 6:35 p.m. ET on Sunday, followed by the women's 10-meter platform at approximately 8:50 p.m., all on NBC.

Wilkinson is the last American woman to even medal in the 10-meter platform, and David Boudia is the only other American to medal since then (gold in 2012 and bronze in 2016) from the platform. And since Wilkinson won her gold medal in 2000, the only other American women to win an Olympic diving medal were Kelci Bryant and Abigail Johnson, who won silver during their 3-meter synchronized event at the 2012 Games.

The sport has otherwise been dominated by the Chinese.

Nothing has been easy for Wilkinson over the last quarter of a century, or without one new obstacle after another. While training for the 2000 Olympic Trials, she broke three bones on the bottom part of her right foot while doing a dry landing for one particular dive. She landed awkwardly on a block, which caused the break.

She went through months of wincing while walking and training.

"It was very painful for six months and I only got three weeks in the water before Trials," Wilkinson said.

She made the 2000 Olympic Team for Sydney, but the training was still excruciating. Not only was it tough to use the balls of her feet on the edge of the platform, but there was climbing the three-story-tall platform. She used a special shoe for the climb and tossed it to the ground just moments before she made her daredevil plunge from high above the pool.

Wilkinson got into the finals of the Sydney Olympics, but soon found herself in eighth place (out of 12 divers) after the first couple of dives despite her No. 5 seeding.

"I was 25 points behind the leaders and my first two dives were not great," she said. "And then my headphone batteries died."

Then came her go-to dive, the reverse two and a half somersault tuck.

"I knew I was going to hit it and I did," she said. "Then I started hearing some of the scores of the top four and they all wiped out. I knew I had a chance to medal by then."

However, despite gaining some momentum, Wilkinson's fourth dive was the same dive she broke those bones during a dry landing. The psychological effects starting kicking around the Texan's head.

She nailed the dive.

In between each dive, the divers in Sydney had to wait behind a wall, where they couldn't see their competitors dive nor see the scoreboard. Wilkinson could only peek around the wall to see her coach, Kenny Armstrong, who got a little crazier after each competitor shanked their dives.

After the final diver had a bad dive, Armstrong went nuts. Wilkinson then ran out to ask if she had simply medaled.

"I ran over and said, "we medaled?" And he said, "No, we did it!""

They won gold. No other American female diver has won Olympic gold since 2000, and no individual female diver has even medaled in an event—sans the synchronized duo in 2012.

In 2008, Wilkinson retired from competitive diving to start a family with her husband, Eriek. Realizing the fact they may not ever have a biological child, they put in adoption papers for a child from China. During the application process, they became pregnant on their own. Laura got pregnant and eventually gave birth to Ariella. Then, about 18 months later, they adopted Zoe from China. Ariella and Zoe are close to the same age—roughly six months apart.

Laura and Eriek then were able to have another child, a boy named Zadok, in 2014. The couple then followed through on a long-time process of adopting an Ethiopian child they named Dakaia. When Wilkinson was being highlighted during the semifinals on Wednesday, the TV cameras for the Olympic Channel often panned to show Eriek and Dakaia cheering for hero mom in the Indianapolis waters.

Laura Wilkinson won Olympic gold 21 years ago in Sydney and she's back again!

The 2000 Olympic champion and 43-year-old mother of four qualified for Sunday’s #DivingTrials21 final in the women’s 10m platform.@Lala_the_diver @TeamUSA @USADiving @OnHerTurf pic.twitter.com/hUeyaTafrt

— #TokyoOlympics (@NBCOlympics) June 10, 2021

"I have to remember that being here is a gift within itself," Wilkinson said Wednesday night after completing her dives. "It's pretty cool seeing [children in the stands]. Having them watch me go through this and being in this atmosphere and realizing it's important to understand it. ... For them to see what this is is pretty special.

"When I became a mom, I don't know if it's a culture thing or it's just something as a mom you get into your head that, 'my time is over and now it's time to just be there for my kids,' it's so not true. You can have kids and you can have big dreams and do things and bring them along for the ride. When they get to watch you and be part of that experience with you, I mean, that speaks so much louder to them than if you just telling them how to land. If they can actually see you doing it, that makes a bigger lasting impression."

Now, Wilkinson at age 43 and competing against U.S. divers closer to her children's ages, she hopes to make another impression on the USA and the world this Sunday night in Indiana.