Laura Wilkinson aims for another shot at Olympic glory aged 42

The Sydney 2000 Olympic champion diver, now a mother of four children, is grateful for an extra year to prepare for her Olympic comeback.

By ZK Goh ·

Not many 40-something mothers take part in an Olympic diving competition.

Sydney 2000 champion Laura Wilkinson intends to be one of them next year at Tokyo 2020.

As a 22-year-old in Sydney, Wilkinson fought off a broken foot to break China’s dominance in the women’s 10-metre platform event and win gold.

Now, the American – buoyed by an extra year to train after the Tokyo Games were postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic – is targeting her fourth Games.

Retirement and comeback

Wilkinson originally retired after Beijing 2008.

“I was just 30 years old and we'd put it off for a while and I was really ready to be a mum,” she told ABC13 TV in Texas last year.

Four children – two adopted – later, while watching Rio 2016 on TV, Wilkinson wondered if she could make a comeback.

“This is something I never thought I would be able to do again,” she recently told Reuters.

“People just tend to retire in my sport in their early 20s and that's it, you just never think you are going to do it again. I kind of feel like I was made for it so to have another opportunity is such a gift.”

The comeback has not been easy.

In 2017, she placed second at the U.S. nationals, but then suffered a nerve injury in her back which led to spinal surgery in 2018.

“I was going to have to make this decision to have surgery to try to dive or just retire and be mum.

“I talked to the surgeon and he said any minor accident, a slip down the stairs, a small car accident could make you a paraplegic.”

Laura Wilkinson competes at the 2017 USA Diving Summer National Championships. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)

Long-time coach

Before the pandemic struck, the 42-year-old had been training with her long-time coach Kenny Armstrong in Texas and had qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials.

Some of her training partners weren’t even born when she won gold in 2000.

“I think they are a little intimidated, it makes them sit up at the table a little bit straighter,” Armstrong said to Reuters.

“They better bring their A game because they know she can beat them.”

Recovery from surgery had been going slower than planned for Wilkinson, who admitted the Tokyo postponement was a bonus.

“I'm actually really thankful for it. I kind of felt like I was running out of time so having the extra year is like a gift.”

"Do amazing things"

Wilkinson remains the only female American Olympic champion in diving since Jennifer Chandler won the three-metre springboard event in 1976, with China winning the majority of gold medals since then.

If she makes the team as one of the two American women in the platform event, she will be 43 when the Games come around in 2021.

She stands a chance of being the oldest Olympic champion diver – Sammy Lee was 32 when he won the men’s platform event in 1952.

Her motivation? Being an inspiration to other mothers.

She told ABC13: “Instead of being afraid and like running away from your fear, you've got to stand up, stare it down and face it, you know?

“And that allows you to do amazing things.”