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American Is on Top of World

SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES

Women's diving: While others fade, Wilkinson keeps cool to win first U.S. gold on platform since 1964.

September 25, 2000|DIANE PUCIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SYDNEY, Australia — As Laura Wilkinson stood, perched 33 feet above the water on the 10-meter diving platform, she recited a Bible verse to herself and counted, 3-2-1.

Then she closed her eyes, took a deep breath and did a back 2 1/2 somersault with a half-twist in the pike position. When her head popped up after her straight and soft entry, Wilkinson saw the scores: 8.0s, 8.5s, 9.0s.

The drama wasn't over. Wilkinson had to peek from behind a curtain to watch four other divers. But those other divers needed perfection to beat Wilkinson, and perfection didn't happen.

Wilkinson, a 22-year-old University of Texas graduate, was the stunned winner of the Olympic platform diving gold medal on Sunday night.

For the first time since 1980 there was not a Chinese winner and for the first time since Lesley Bush in 1964 there was an American winner.

Wilkinson finished with 543.75 points, 1.74 points ahead of 16-year-old Li Na of China and 3.60 points ahead of bronze medalist Anne Montminy, a 25-year-old Canadian lawyer who is retiring after the Olympics.

Sang Xue, 15, finished fourth, 12.06 points behind Wilkinson.

For two days the gold and silver had seemed to belong to Li and Sang in some order. The two were nearly 40 points clear of the field after preliminaries and nearly 60 points clear of the field after the semifinals.

But preliminary scores don't carry over and the two internationally inexperienced teenagers finally showed nerves.

For Wilkinson, it was time to look inside herself and find calmness. "It's from God," Wilkinson said. "It must have been."

It was something else too. Just before Wilkinson performed the fourth of her five dives Sunday night, her coach, Ken Armstrong, whispered to Wilkinson, "Do it for Hilary."

"Hilary" was Hilary Grivich, a former national team gymnast who became a diver about the same time Wilkinson gave up gymnastics and turned to diving. The two became close friends as members of Armstrong's Houston-area team.

Two years ago Grivich was killed in a car crash. Wilkinson has stayed close to Grivich's family.

"When Ken said that," Wilkinson said, "I was a little surprised. But Hilary was a good friend to all of us and it helped to think of her."

Six months ago it seemed impossible that Wilkinson would be on the U.S. team at all.

She broke her right foot in three places in March while doing practice approaches on a wood board.

There is a piece of bone protruding from the bottom of her foot and as soon as the Olympics end, Wilkinson will have surgery. She wears a kayak boot, one with a stiff, rubber sole, when she climbs up the platform to protect the injured foot.

After the preliminary round, Wilkinson was fifth behind both Chinese divers, Montminy and another Canadian, 18-year-old Emilie Heymans.

Sunday morning, as she had in the preliminaries, Wilkinson missed her inward 2 1/2 somersault. Combined scores from the preliminaries and semifinals are added to determine the 12 finalists. Wilkinson qualified fifth for the finals.

Wilkinson was in eighth place heading into the finals. After her first dive, she moved into fifth place, where she stayed after two dives.

Then came the third, the dive Wilkinson counted on, the dive she knew she would hit.

"I went all out on the third dive," Wilkinson said. "I didn't hold anything back."

Wilkinson entered the water silently. There was hardly a splash. Armstrong thought his student deserved some perfect 10s, which she had received last month at the U.S. nationals in Mission Viejo. There was no 10 but there were four 9.5s.

The next diver after Wilkinson, Heymans, badly missed, scoring 2s and 3s. Montminy came next and recorded scores as low as 5.5. Li followed and, for the first time in three rounds, nerves showed.

Having taken up the sport after the 1992 Olympics when Fu Mingxia won the first of her two platform golds, Li over-rotated badly on her entry. Scores as low as 5.0 flashed and Li looked near tears. A moment later her 15-year-old teammate, Sang, missed even worse.

American flags were waved and, suddenly, after two days and two rounds of tension Wilkinson was in first place.

As Wilkinson approached the platform for the fourth dive, the one she kept missing, Armstrong thought Wilkinson needed to realize that winning a medal wasn't the important thing, and so he spoke of Grivich.

It was while she worked on the approach to this inward 2 1/2 somersault that Wilkinson broke her foot. "It has scared me to do that dive," Wilkinson said. "I've been afraid I'd hit my foot on the board on that dive. Thinking of Hilary helped."

While the dive wasn't perfect, it was enough to keep Wilkinson in first place. And she knew after her final dive, when scores of 8s and 9s flashed, that a medal was close. But gold wasn't hers until the final diver, Sang, hit the water.

A distraught Sang was crying on the platform as she performed her final dive, knowing that she would need to average a perfect 10 to overtake Wilkinson.

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