(Reuters) - If you are Laura Wilkinson, a 42-year-old mother making your return to competitive diving after under-going spinal fusion surgery, a year delay in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics is not a bad thing — it’s a gift.
For those wondering why a mother of four is throwing herself off a 10-meter tower, you have to look back two decades when Wilkinson’s name might have been familiar.
It was a new millennium and Wilkinson, despite being hobbled by a broken foot, had just spectacularly won gold on the 10-metre platform at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Her triumph ended Chinese domination of the event stretching back to the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
No American woman diver has won Olympic gold in any diving discipline since.
Comebacks have long been a staple of the sporting genre but Wilkinson’s return has all the elements of a unique feel-good story.
Her journey not only evokes memories of Tiger Woods’ comeback following career-saving back surgery, but also exhibits the same kind of determination Serena Williams has shown in returning to competition after giving birth.
To top it off, Wilkinson will also be facing an element of danger that neither Woods or Williams have to contend with when they are swinging a club or a racket respectively.
Living with the risk that one small miss-step while crashing into the water at 38 mph might leave you a paraplegic adds another layer of drama to what is already a compelling return.
Throw in a coronavirus pandemic that has turned the sporting world upside down and delayed the 2020 Tokyo Games for a year, Wilkinson, should she earn one of two spots on the U.S. squad, will be 43 when she steps onto the Olympic tower again.
Her goal is not just to climb back to the top of an Olympic 10-metre platform but to stand on top of the podium by becoming the oldest woman diver to win gold.
That record currently belongs to China’s Wu Minxia, who was 30 when she won the synchronized three metre springboard at the 2016 Rio Games.
“This is something I never thought I would be able to do again,” Wilkinson told Reuters in a phone interview from her Texas home.
“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.”
Wilkinson was one of those “people” as she dived into a new life to raise a family when injury prevented her from competing at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
She had two children with her husband Eriek and adopted two more but the sport took up permanent residence in the back of her mind.
“I don’t think I ever wanted to be done with diving,” said Wilkinson. “The idea of coming back was kind of always there especially when I watched the next two Olympics and the quality wasn’t as high as when I was diving in 2008.
“After Rio I talked to my coach and asked if it would be crazy.”
Her long time coach Kenny Armstrong was soon on board and plans were put in place for an Olympic return.
In the background there were doubters but it was the not the first time Wilkinson had heard she was too old.
As a young girl Wilkinson’s goal was to become a gymnast but a growth spurt in her early teens ended that dream. So she switched to diving only to be told she was too old for a new sport and was kicked off her high school team.
“As far as can she do it (Olympics), there was no doubt in my mind at all,” Armstrong told Reuters. “I think they (young divers) are a little intimidated, it makes them sit up at the table a little bit straighter.
“They better bring their A game because they know she can beat them.”
Wilkinson’s return to competition began positively with a second place at the 2017 Nationals but a nerve issue down her arms threatened to cut short her comeback.
An MRI revealed cervical damage that would require surgery and possibly end her Olympic dream.
“I was going to have to make this decision to have surgery to try to dive or just retire and be mom,” recalled Wilkinson. “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 so that kind of took the decision out of my hands.
“It was very scary.”
In December 2018, Wilkinson underwent spinal reconstruction surgery before beginning her rehabilitation. She used everything from cryotherapy to a Orthofix bone stimulator that uses electromagnetic energy to stimulate bone growth.
Having already qualified for the U.S. Olympic trials, Wilkinson was in a race to get back to full fitness when suddenly the Tokyo Games were postponed. That gifted her a bonus year.
“I’m actually really thankful for it (the postponement),” said Wilkinson. “I kind of felt like I was running out of time so having the extra year is like a gift.”
Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto. Editing by Pritha Sarkar