Wilkinson is back for more

Matt Lauer, the co-host of NBC's Today show, unabashedly brandishes the "taking-the-plunge" cliché, but diver Laura Wilkinson remains unfazed. Maybe it's because she's accustomed to standing on a platform 33 feet above the water and contemplating her spinning, 30-mile-an-hour descent.

"What are you concentrating on?" Lauer asks Wilkinson.

"I usually look just kind of out and down at the water in front of me, at the edge of the pool," Wilkinson replies.

Scintillating stuff? Hardly, but if the BALCO steroids scandal thins the ranks of American sprinters, NBC will be relying on Wilkinson to help carry its coverage of the Summer Olympic Games in Athens.

Four years ago, NBC was focusing its attention on Mark Ruiz and Jenny Keim, but it was Wilkinson who brought home the gold medal, in the women's 10-meter platform. With China's emergence as the diving superpower, it was one of the great upsets of the Games and the first U.S. gold in that event since 1964. This time around, as her appearance on Today suggested, NBC is on board -- so to speak -- with the 26-year-old Texan.

"I happen to believe that the BALCO incident is part of an enormous cleansing process for track and field," said NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol. "If we lose some of our top women's sprinters, we'll still cover it. But that night and the next night we have the platform diving with Laura Wilkinson. [She] will be a big part of our coverage on both of those nights."

That was in mid-June, two days before the U.S. Olympic trials final in St. Peters, Mo. The funny thing? Wilkinson was thisclose to not making it to Athens.

Brittany Viola, the 17-year-old daughter of former major-league pitcher Frank Viola, was sitting second, only 5.37 points behind Wilkinson. Having already lost in the synchronized platform event, Wilkinson was down to her last chance -- a familiar position.

"I was pretty aware of the scores," Wilkinson said. "I wanted to know what I had to do."

Wilkinson stepped on the platform and executed her backward pike 2½ somersault with 1½ twists almost perfectly. The judges gave her all 9s and one 8.5 and she won the event with 878.85 points.

"You can't give up," she said. "I wanted to go out with a great dive. You've got to come back fighting like a tiger."

This seems to be Wilkinson's modus operandi.

Six months before the Olympic Games in Sydney, in March 2000, Wilkinson was doing a flip in dry-land training and landed awkwardly. She suffered a stress fracture in her left foot and three broken bones in her right. The surgery prescribed by doctors would not allow her to compete, so she passed.

"I went through all of the emotions, the denial, the anger, the sadness, all that stuff," she said. "I thought, 'Well, maybe this is over. Maybe I should just walk away. Maybe this is an easy out."

Maybe not.

For 10 weeks, she stood on the edge of that platform, her foot in a cast. She closed her eyes, forced away the pain and dove in her mind. Wilkinson managed to make the U.S. Olympic team and, at the Sydney Olympics limped (literally) into the finals in a respectable eighth place. For most people, that would have been enough. Wilkinson took the lead after her third of five dives and never lost it.

"Every time I watch the film, I just start crying," she said. "Every time I see it, I'm right back there again."

In a very real sense, Wilkinson didn't make it back "there" again. After the gold medal performance, she did the Olympic celebrity circuit: talk shows, the Wheaties box, Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

She had always strived for balance in her life, so she took her time deciding what to do. She completed her public relations degree at the University of Texas. She got married.

"OK," she said to herself. "I won an Olympic medal. Why should I keep going? Can I do it again?"

Deep inside, Wilkinson was not convinced she had done her best work. So she started practicing again. The diving world, static for so long, had changed. Propelled by the Chinese, the sport had become more technically difficult. The degree of difficulty took a quantum leap, and Wilkinson made the commitment to evolve with it.

Not one of the dives she executed in Sydney will be in her program for Athens. It was a slow process; during a competition in China last year, the Chinese divers were quoted as saying they were not impressed with her progress.

Then, in February at the Diving World Cup in Athens, she won the platform event. Of the United States' 11 divers competing in Athens, Wilkinson has the best chance to win. She will be the favorite to win a second gold medal.

"I had an up-and-down year because I was learning all these new dives and a lot of people counted me out as a has-been," she said. "Then I did really well at our World Cup and raised a few eyebrows.

"That was a confidence-builder for me, and now I feel I can still be right there. I'm not feeling too much pressure. I'm excited."