Laura Wilkinson

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Laura Wilkinson announces diving comeback

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The 2000 Olympic diving champion Laura Wilkinson was elected to the International Swimming Hall of Fame on Thursday.

She announced a comeback on Thursday, too.

Wilkinson, a 39-year-old mother of three, plans to compete on the platform for the first time since 2008 at a small meet near her Texas home later this month.

She’s not committing to any national-level meets yet, but if she feels up to it, can see herself diving through this Olympic cycle. And possibly at the 2020 Tokyo Games, should she be able to qualify.

“As long as my body holds up, I’d love to go for [the Olympics] again,” Wilkinson said in a phone interview Thursday. “It feels good going back up there [atop the platform] again. Like home.”

It all started in fall 2015, when Wilkinson saw her old coach, Kenny Armstrong, while taking her kids to a local pool. Armstrong suggested Wilkinson return, when her kids were in school, and join his springboard divers for training once a week.

“It started coming back really quickly,” she said. “It kind of got me thinking.”

Wilkinson worked for NBC at the Rio Olympics and in the months since started driving 90 minutes each way once or twice a week to the University of Houston to train platform. Her local pool only has springboards.

To Wilkinson’s surprise, her body handled the impact of platform dives pretty well. By Thursday, she announced her comeback on social media via a YouTube video titled, #DreamChaser.

“I don’t know that it ever really leaves you,” said Wilkinson, who is being coached by Armstrong again. “When you love something, it’s always a part of you.”

Wilkinson pulled off one of the great stories of the Sydney 2000 Olympics, jumping from eighth place over five final-round dives to become the first U.S. woman in 36 years to win platform gold.

She prevailed six months after breaking three middle bones in her right foot, banging it on a piece of plywood used for training.

The U.S. would go 12 years before winning another Olympic diving title (David Boudia, men’s platform), but Wilkinson remains the most recent female U.S. Olympic diving champion.

Wilkinson competed in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics and won the 2005 World title in between before retiring. She then gave birth to daughter Arella and son Zadok and, with her husband, adopted another baby, Zoe, from China.

“When I retired in 2008, I felt old enough, 30, and I’d been around forever,” Wilkinson said. “My body was beat up. I wanted to have a family.”

She made a brief domestic comeback in 2010 and 2011, on springboard, and qualified for the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials but decided not to compete.

“It’s like it’s new again, but it’s not,” Wilkinson said of this comeback. “It’s comfortable.”

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MORE: David Boudia to decide whether to retire

Fifteen memorable moments from Sydney 2000 Olympics

Cathy Freeman
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On the 15th anniversary of the Opening Ceremony of the Sydney Olympics, here are 15 chronological memories:

Sept. 15 — Cathy Freeman lights Olympic cauldron

The cauldron lighting proved one of the most poignant in Olympic history, with World 400m champion Cathy Freeman being handed the torch after a final relay in the stadium with all female torchbearers, marking 100 years of women’s participation at the Olympics.

The choice of Freeman was also noteworthy as she’s Aboriginal. She was recently reunited with the suit she wore on Sept. 15, 2000, after it disappeared from her dressing room after she took it off later that night.

Sept. 16 — Australians smash the Americans like guitars in 4x100m relay

Perhaps the most anticipated U.S.-Australia showdown came on the first night of medal competition in the men’s 4x100m freestyle relay.

Before the Olympics, outspoken U.S. swimmer Gary Hall Jr. wrote, “We will smash them like guitars,” in an otherwise complimentary piece about Australia and its swimmers.

Hall would anchor the U.S. in the relay, which it had never lost at the Olympics (excluding the boycotted Moscow 1980 Games). He would face Australia’s new superstar, the 17-year-old Ian Thorpe, who earlier that night won the 400m free in world-record time.

Hall outsplit Thorpe on the anchor leg, but Thorpe held on for the win, sending the Sydney Aquatic Centre into a frenzy. Most memorably, bald Michael Klim, who broke the 100m free world record leading off, led an Aussie air guitar strum session after Thorpe touched the wall.

Sept. 18-19 — Michael Phelps’ Olympic debut

It barely made headlines at the time, but the 15-year-old who finished fifth in the 200m butterfly in his first Olympic event would eventually become the most decorated Olympian of all time.

Michael Phelps became the youngest U.S. Olympic swimmer since 1932 in Sydney and showed his youth by taking the wrong athlete credential to the pool and forgetting to tie his swimsuit strings before his first race. But the talent was evident.

“Boy, this guy’s going to be great one day,” NBC Olympics analyst Rowdy Gaines said on the broadcast.

FLASHBACK: Michael Phelps at the Sydney 2000 Olympics

Sept. 19 — Eric the Eel

Equatorial Guinea’s Eric Moussambani captivated the Sydney Aquatic Centre as he swam alone in the first heat of the 100m freestyle. Moussambani struggled to complete the distance, eventually touching the wall in 1:52.72, the slowest time in Olympic history.

Eric the Eel received thunderous applause from the crowd recognizing the Olympic value of not the triumph, but the struggle. Not to conquer, but to take part.

Misty Hyman
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Sept. 20 — Misty upsets Madame Butterfly

The U.S. bettered Australia in the women’s 200m butterfly, when Misty Hyman stunned heavy gold-medal favorite Susie O’Neill. O’Neill, nicknamed “Madame Butterfly,” entered the race as the reigning Olympic and World champion and the world-record holder. So beloved in Australia, the butterfly was referred to as “the Susie stroke.”

Hyman, in her only career Olympic race, summoned an Olympic and American record swim that was .07 off O’Neill’s world record. O’Neill claimed silver, seven tenths of a second behind.

Sept. 21 — Controversial women’s all-around final

It’s a night many gymnastics fans choose not to remember. The women’s all-around final was won by Andreea Raducan in a Romanian podium sweep, which could have been historic.

However, Raducan was stripped of the crown later in the Sydney Games after testing positive for a banned substance from cold-medicine pills given to her by a team doctor. The blame fell on the doctor, and the women who were upgraded in the final medal standings all reportedly said Raducan was the deserving winner.

Also, during the all-around final, it was discovered the vault was set too low. It had to be reset, and all gymnasts who had competed on the faulty apparatus were given the option of re-doing their vaults. Russian Svetlana Khorkina, who had the highest all-around score in qualifying, fell on the mis-measured vault and then again on her trademark apparatus, uneven bars. She chose not to re-do her vault. It wouldn’t have mattered. She finished 10th.

Sept. 22-30 — The drive for five

Marion Jones was the biggest American star of the Games, though she would be stripped of all five of her medals, including golds in the 100m, 200m and 4x400m relay, after a 2007 admission that she used performance-enhancing drugs leading up to Sydney.

Sept. 24 — Laura Wilkinson goes from eighth to gold

Only one non-Chinese won an individual diving title in Sydney. The shocking effort came from Texan Laura Wilkinson.

Wilkinson jumped from eighth place over five final-round dives to become the first U.S. woman in 36 years to take platform gold. She prevailed six months after breaking three middle bones in her right foot, banging it on a piece of plywood used for training. The U.S. would go 12 years before winning another Olympic diving medal.

Sept. 25 — Dunk de la mort

The U.S. men’s basketball team looked human at times during the Games, beating Lithuania by two points in the semifinals and France by 10 in the final. But not Vince Carter in one highlight.

Carter, nicknamed “Half-Man, Half-Amazing,” posterized 7-foot, 2-inch Frederic Weis in a preliminary-round game against the French with a slam that became known as “Dunk de la mort” (Dunk of Death). Weis had been drafted in the first round by the New York Knicks in 1999 but never played in the NBA.

Sept. 25 — U.S. softball completes comeback

The Americans came to Sydney riding a 110-game winning streak, but that was snapped by Japan in group play. The next day, the U.S. lost to China. The day after that, the U.S. lost to Australia.

Pitcher Lisa Fernandez led the team in a cleansing, jumping in the shower together with their uniforms on, in hopes of breaking the curse. It worked. The U.S. won its next five games, including beating China, Australia and Japan in the medal round to repeat as Olympic champion.

Cathy Freeman
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Sept. 25 — Magic Monday

The Olympic cauldron lighter Freeman captured 400m gold in front of a reported more than 110,000 spectators at Stadium Australia as part of perhaps the greatest single day of competition in one sport in Olympic history. Magic Monday, they called it.

Also that night, Michael Johnson won his final individual Olympic race (men’s 400m), Stacy Dragila won the first Olympic women’s pole vault, British world-record holder Jonathan Edwards won his first gold medal in his fourth Olympics and Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie beat Kenyan rival Paul Tergat by .09 of a second in a furious final sprint in the 10,000m.

9/25/00: Magic Monday at Sydney Olympics

Sept. 27 — Miracle on the Mat

Maybe the biggest gold-medal favorite going into the Olympics was Greco-Roman super-heavyweight wrestler Aleksandr Karelin, who had not lost a match in 13 years and not been scored upon in six.

The chiseled Russian made it to the Sydney final, seeking his fourth straight Olympic gold medal. There, he would be beaten 1-0 by Wyoming farm boy Rulon Gardner, who celebrated by doing a cartwheel and somersault on the mat.

Sept. 27 — Miracle on Grass

The most famous name on the U.S. baseball team of major-league castoffs and minor-league prospects was its manager, Tommy Lasorda.

In the gold-medal game, the Americans shocked Cuba, which had won all 18 of its games en route to gold medals in the first two Olympic baseball tournaments in 1992 and 1996. Ben Sheets pitched a three-hit shutout in a 4-0 victory.

MORE: Remembering the 2000 U.S. Olympic baseball team

Sept. 28 — Best women’s soccer game ever?

In a thrilling gold-medal game, Norway upset the reigning Olympic and World Cup champion U.S. 3-2 with a sudden-death goal in the 102nd minute after the Americans had forced extra time with a stoppage-time score. It’s the only Olympic loss for the U.S. women’s soccer team in five tournaments.

Norway’s Dagny Mellgren scored the winner after a ricocheted ball hit her left arm, causing some to say it merited a handball call.

Oct. 1 — ‘Best Olympic Games ever’

The Closing Ceremony included Greg Norman hitting soft golf balls into the crowd, Paul Hogan as Crocodile Dundee, the Bananas in Pajamas and Elle Macpherson walking a runway on a float resembling a camera.

More memorably, Juan Antonio Samaranch declared Sydney 2000 to be “the best Olympic Games ever” in the closing address of his final Olympics as IOC president.

Catching up with Laura Wilkinson

Laura Wilkinson
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Laura Wilkinson pulled off one of the great stories of the Sydney 2000 Olympics, jumping from eighth place over five final-round dives to become the first U.S. woman in 36 years to win platform gold.

Wilkinson prevailed six months after breaking three middle bones in her right foot, banging it on a piece of plywood used for training. The U.S. would go 12 years before winning another Olympic diving medal.

The Texan competed in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics before retiring and giving birth to daughter Arella and son Zadok and adopting another baby, Zoe, from China in between.

She has stayed close to the sport, serving as an athlete representative for USA Diving through 2012 and doing some commentating. She won’t push her children into the sport — “Maybe they’ll be great piano players,” she says — but the opportunity will certainly be there to put those genes to use.

OlympicTalk recently caught up with Wilkinson to look back on her career and discuss what it’s like to chase three young children around.

OlympicTalk: Does your gold medal remind you of any other Olympic come-from-behind victories?

Wilkinson: When they made that movie, “Miracle,” about the 1980 hockey team [in 2004], that really resonated with me. I was nowhere near that kind of level or had that number of people watching me, but the feelings and what they went through. Being the underdog, nobody felt like I had a chance. That movie makes me nostalgic about what we went through in Sydney. Maybe it was on a smaller scale, but it was big to me.

OlympicTalk: Any other interesting stories from Sydney?

Wilkinson: My mom managed to sneak home my [medal ceremony] bouquet. You’re not supposed to take plants across borders, but my mom gave the customs border agent a sad face.

OlympicTalk: Before the Olympics, you won the 1998 Goodwill Games platform title in New York. What was it like competing at an international competition in New York?

Wilkinson: It was kind of cool and unusual, one of my first international meets where there were more sports than just diving. I got a little taste of what the Olympics would be like. It was my first time diving on live TV and that many people in the stands watching. I was still dreaming about the Olympics at that point.

I thought it was awesome to be on our home turf. We were out on Long Island, but we got to go into town and see some things.

OlympicTalk: What was the worst dive of your career?

Wilkinson: A back armstand triple tuck off the 10-meter, in ’98, right before the Goodwill Games. I started throwing my head back on a takeoff in practice, and before I knew it I landed on my stomach. After that I started closing my eyes on dives. I’d never been so lost before. It was a really scary time. I would rather take a hit, break a bone, go through some type of pain, but that dive was all-encompassing. I closed my eyes [diving] for years after that. I finally admitted that to my coach [Kenny Armstrong] in 2001. We had to go back through the basics again of spotting my dives [looking for the water mid-dive to know when to kick out your feet and preparing for water entry].

OlympicTalk: Divers always have headphones on between dives. What did you listen to?

Wilkinson: It depended on what kind of mood I was in. If I was mellow, I wanted something upbeat to get me to jump around a lot. If I was nervous, something slower to calm me down. I liked Jeremy Camp, Tobymac and Natalie Grant.

OlympicTalk: What’s life like now as a mother of three?

Wilkinson: Very different. I get a little stir crazy some times. I’m not used to being at the house so much. It’s kind of a different Olympics. I call it the Momlympics [blogging about it here].

When I was diving and training full time, I still had breaks, rests, a full night’s sleep, massages and ice on things that hurt. When you’re a parent, especially with three kids under 3, there’s no down time, no rest for the weary. But it’s awesome. The rewards are way better than standing on top of a podium for a matter of seconds. They last a liftetime.

Catching up with: Bruce Jenner | Mark Henry | Shawn Johnson