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Improbable win for American

Laura Wilkinson, who broke a foot in March, out-guts favored Chinese.

By Compiled from Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 25, 2000

SYDNEY, Australia -- Laura Wilkinson has always liked inspirational stories.

Now the American is one.

Wilkinson came from behind and won the gold medal in the 10-meter platform Sunday. Her victory came as a surprise to many.

But one person wasn't surprised.

"I knew I could do it," said Wilkinson, 22.

Her win was the stuff Olympic stories are made of. She was lightly regarded, and she competed with an injured right foot and needed to wear a custom-made shoe to help her mount the platform.

She was on crutches this year after she broke the foot in three places in March during a land practice that involved somersaulting off a block onto a mat.

"The day I broke my foot, I thought my dreams were over," Wilkinson said. "But God works in mysterious ways."

Prodded by her coach, Ken Armstrong, Wilkinson embarked on a brutal training regime that included standing in a cast for six hours a day on top of the platform to practice her push-offs. As soon as the cast was removed, Wilkinson began practicing dives underwater, to avoid putting pressure on her foot.

She earned a spot on the Olympic team in June and decided to put off surgery.

Expected to dominate the competition, as their country has in the past four Olympics, were Chinese divers Na Li, the World Cup champion, and Xue Sang. Wilkinson, who placed 12th at this year's world championships, had only one medal in international competition: a gold from the 1998 Goodwill Games.

But Li, 16, and Sang, 15, who were first and second after the preliminaries and semifinals, stumbled on their third dives. Li got the silver medal, Anne Montminy of Canada the bronze.

The last American woman to win a gold medal on the platform was Lesley Bush in 1964.

Wilkinson was in fifth place after the first two dives of the five-dive final.

On her third dive, an inward 31/2 somersault in the tuck position, Sang over-rotated, creating a big splash. She garnered marks ranging from 4.5 to 6.0 out of a possible 10. On Li's third, a forward 31/2 somersault in the pike position, she earned no higher than a 6.0.

Wilkinson's third was one of her strongest dives -- a reverse 21/2 tuck somersault. She entered the water with almost no splash and received marks ranging from 9.0 to 9.5 to take the lead.

She cemented her lead with her fourth dive, an inward 21/2 pike somersault. It is the dive she was practicing when she broke her foot.

"It makes me nervous to get so close to the tower because I don't want to hurt my foot again," she said.

Before Wilkinson walked to the ladder, Armstrong urged her to dive for her friend and teammate Hilary Grivich, who was killed in a car accident in 1998. He had never invoked Grivich's name before. "She needed a boost," Armstrong said. "That's a tough dive."

Wilkinson said she was caught off guard but the comment cleared her head and inspired her to nail the dive. She scored 8.5s and 9.0s and finished with 543.75 points, 1.74 ahead of Li.

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