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WILKINSON OVERCOMES TO TAKE DIVING GOLD

Laura Wilkinson might have been the unlikeliest candidate to break a 36-year U.S. gold medal drought in women's 10-meter platform diving.

Wilkinson has a broken foot. She has to wear a special shoe just to climb the stairs to the platform. One of her dives makes her extremely nervous. And heading into Sunday night's finals, she had to overcome her fifth-place qualifying scores.

So, naturally, she won.

"I was 20 points back," she said. "It's a pretty good difference, but not huge. I knew I just had to put it out there. I couldn't miss a dive."

Not only did she not miss a dive, she hit her best one at the perfect moment. On the third round of the finals, the women ahead of her in the standings all botched their dives. Wilkinson watched all four of them, Sang Xue and Li Na of China and Anne Montminy and Emilie Heymans of Canada, collect their worst scores of the night.

Wilkinson climbed the platform, gingerly as always, stepped to the edge of the platform without a trace of worry and calmly executed a near-perfect reverse two-and-a-half in a tuck position. The scoreboard flashed a set of 9.0s and 9.5s. Her face flashed a giant smile. She had vaulted from fifth place all the way to first.

And she stayed there. She got through her fourth dive -- the one she was practicing when she broke her foot in March, leaving her with three displaced bones -- without giving in to her nerves. Only after her last dive would she let herself celebrate.

She yelled. She lost herself in her coach's embrace. She thanked God.

"With what I've been through, that's the only way I could be here right now," she said. "The comeback tonight, I didn't even know if it was possible. He said yes."

This event is regularly dominated by the Chinese women. They have been remarkably consistent, as well as incredibly talented. The U.S. women have done fairly well in the springboard events, but the platform has been a dry spot. Wilkinson, 22, has made few waves on the international scene.

In March, she doubted she could even get up the stairs by the time the Olympics rolled around. First, she decided against surgery because that would have put her out of action for months. That will come after the Olympics. Instead she wore a cast for two months, allowing the bones to heal wrong, then resumed training. She struggled up those long flights of stairs, her coach following behind with her crutches.

Just standing on her toes, necessary to start her reverse dives, hurt. She couldn't do any forward dives that required a running start. And that inward dive she got hurt practicing required staying dangerously close to the platform after takeoff.

"When I was forced to take the time off, I realized then how much I wanted to be here," Wilkinson said.

She also soaked up support from her family and friends in Houston, read inspirational books to lift her spirits. She loves comeback stories, reading about people who overcome obstacles.

Now she's one of them.

"If I could be an inspiration to someone else," she said, "that would be a dream come true."

But not anywhere near as improbable as the first one.

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