Olympic Dreams Revived: Laura Wilkinson on Resilience, Family & Coming Back

Photo Courtesy: ISHOF

By Erin Keaveny, Swimming World Correspondent. 

In March of 2000 Laura Wilkinson broke three bones in her foot. Six months later, she was competing at the Olympic Games, and the only American to make finals. She started the last round in eighth place.

Wearing a sneaker on her right foot for support, Wilkinson climbed up three stories of stairs to the ten meter platform. She still hadn’t fully recovered.

“She’s well out of medal contention,” commentators said before her first dive.

By the third round, she was in first place. Two dives later, she won.

It’s been 10 years since Wilkinson dove in an Olympic Games, and 18 years since she won her Olympic Gold.

She was the first American woman to win an Olympic Gold in diving since 1964, and no American woman has done it since. Her medal from the 2005 World Championships is the only American diving gold since 1991. And on March 2, 2017 Wilkinson was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

Wilkinson has an impressive list of accolades, but she’s not done yet.

On the same day of her ISHOF induction, in a video entitled “Laura Wilkinson #DREAMCHASER” she announced that after a nine year break, she was coming out of retirement.

The video ends with the flash of a gold medal hanging around her neck, an underwater shot of Wilkinson holding up her fingers to show the number twenty, and bold text against a black screen that reads TOKYO 2020.

“You have to have a goal so you know where you’re going,” Wilkinson said.

Laura Wilkinson Diving

Photo Courtesy: Laura Wilkinson

This time around, her circumstances are a little different. But Wilkinson’s determination hasn’t budged.

Her training regimen is still vigorous. She has dryland and pool time five to six days a week, usually in one long session per day.

As part of her training, she employs visualization tactics. The same methods she used to prepare for the 2000 Olympics while injured. Due to the number of impacts on the water her body can withstand and a tight practice schedule, simulating dives through visualization is an important part of her workouts.

Mental workouts can be invaluable in a sport like diving.

“It can be a really frustrating sport, like golf,” Wilkinson said. “You do a thing, and then have a lot of time to wait and think.”

The thinking part of sports is something Wilkinson understands better now. She learned a lot early on. The hard way.

“You can either let challenging experiences break you or remake you,” Wilkinson said. “Once you make it through that hard situation, you now have a wisdom and confidence that you can apply to the next difficult trial.”

Mental training is so important to Wilkinson, she’s working on creating an online class about it. The class is directed towards competitive athletes, and aims to teach them parts of the mental game that are not hard to understand, but can be hard to implement.

Things like building confidence, facing self-doubt, and pushing yourself to the next level.

Writing and explaining what she’s learned to others has helped remind her to keep working on her own mental game, and has required the same kind of reflection that helped pull her back to the sport she loves.

Before her first competition after returning, Wilkinson was nervous about the meet and what other people would think.

She and her husband changed their lifestyle. They sold their house and downsized. They both starting working part time. Prior to her retirement, they had the flexibility to work around her training schedules. Now, they have four children.

Yet, at the 2017 USA National Championships, at 39 years old and after a nine year break, Wilkinson landed back on the podium, finishing in second on platform.

“It’s been a little crazier than before,” Wilkinson admitted, “four kids, juggling, balancing, plates dropping all over the place.”

Wilkinson Family

Photo Courtesy: Laura Wilkinson

Her oldest daughter is seven and just started diving. For Wilkinson, it’s fun to see how much she loves it. She even comes home from school with books she’s written about the sport.

Recently, she came to one of Wilkinson’s platform practices. There, they had the opportunity to practice synchro front dives on one meter, and jumps off of three. A special moment for the mother-daughter duo, something Wilkinson hopes they can do more of in the future.

“I just want them to find something they really enjoy,” Wilkinson said about her children.

Her advice for other young athletes is to enjoy what you’re doing, to keep working at it, and when it get’s hard, to remember to look at the big picture and see how far you’ve come.

She also has wisdom for those with more experience.

“Fall back in love with the sport again,” Wilkinson exclaimed. “Sport is supposed to be fun.”

Wilkinson has been away from competition for a year now due to the adoption on her fourth child. She’s itching to get back.

While it’s been 18 years since an American woman was standing on top of that Olympic podium, she isn’t discouraged.

“I’ve been through so much in my sport and in life,” Wilkinson reflected. “I think that helps me a lot reaching towards this new goal.”

With two years until the next Olympics, she knows what her goals are.

“Platform is open,” Wilkinson stated. “No one is dominating.”