Olympic gold medalist Laura Wilkinson has returned to competitive platform diving and is attempting to qualify for her fourth Olympics at age 43 — 13 years after she retired from the sport.
Now twice the age she was when she took home the gold at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, the Houston native opened up about her comeback on the Today show Friday, just days before she is to compete in the diving finals at the U.S. Olympic trials.
‘I’m kind of just surprised I’m doing it, honestly,’ the mother-of-four said of her efforts to earn a spot on Team USA for next month’s Tokyo Olympics. ‘When I retired at 30 I was old back then, so this whole journey has just been a crazy, fun road.’
Inspiring: Platform diver Laura Wilkinson opened up about her bid to qualify for her fourth Olympics at age 43 on the Today show Friday
Big moment: Earlier this week, the platform diver qualified for the finals at the U.S. Olympic trials on Sunday
At her first Olympics in 2000, Wilkinson became the first American woman in 36 years to win gold in 10-meter platform diving. She went on to compete in two more Olympics before retiring from the sport in 2008.
A decade later, she underwent spinal fusion surgery to repair the damage to her neck following years of slicing through the water at high speeds.
Wilkinson was warned that she may never be able to dive again after the 2018 procedure, but she took the risk.
‘That’s just who I am,’ she said. ‘When you feel really called to do something, you’ve got to be all in. It’s never going to be an easy road, but that’s what makes the journey worth it.
Legacy: At her first Olympics in Sydney in 2000, Wilkinson became the first American woman in 36 years to win gold in 10-meter platform diving
Career: Wilkinson (pictured at the 2000 Olympics) went on to compete in two more Olympics Games before retiring from diving in 2008
Comeback: In 2018, she underwent spinal fusion surgery to repair the damage to her neck following years of diving into the water at high speeds
‘When you get to the other side, whether you achieve all your goals and your dreams or you don’t, going through all of that, it refines you as a person, it’s walking through that fire, and you become better in that process.’
Wilkinson documented her recovery on her YouTube channel, explaining that she had two degenerated discs from her neck and bone spurs. During the 90-minute procedure, surgeons used implants to graft the bone together and put a titanium plate behind her esophagus.
Her husband, Eriek Hulseman, their four children, and her parents, Ed and Linda Wilkinson, were in the audience cheering her on at the Indiana University Natatorium this week when she qualified for the finals, coming in ninth place.
‘I feel like God made it very clear that this is where I need to be,’ she said. ‘When doors were shut and we thought there was no way through, He made a way. He opened doors that weren’t there before.
Overcoming the odds: Wilkinson (pictured in 2017) said she loves being able to compete again, saying: ‘I feel like God made it very clear that this is where I need to be’
Bond: The Olympian recently shared this photo of herself getting a pep talk from Kenny Armstrong, her coach of 28 years, before competing in the trials
Support system: Wilkinson’s four children have been cheering her on every step of the way
‘I feel very much like this is exactly where I need to be, I don’t know why, but I love getting to do this again. Who knows how long that’s for, but I’m just trying to love and soak up every moment.’
Wilkinson has stiff competition as only the top two divers out of the 12 hopefuls will qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.
U.S. Olympians Amy Cozad Magana, Katrina Young, and Jessica Parratto, who competed in the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016, are all hoping to qualify as is 2019 World bronze medalist Delaney Schnell.
Whether or not she makes it to her fourth Olympics, Wilkinson is just enjoying her comeback.
‘I just want to put a list together, I want to do everything the best that I can and walk away feeling proud whether I am on that team or not,’ she said.