Laura Wilkinson is used to proving naysayers wrong.
When she began training in 10-meter platform diving at the age of 15 in her hometown of The Woodlands, Texas, she was told by one of her teachers she was too old to start a new sport. And nine months later, she was kicked off her high school diving team after a coach called her a “waste of space.”
Wilkinson pushed the criticism aside, however, and the next year won her first U.S. National Title, made the U.S. National Team and earned a bronze medal at the World Cup. And in 2000, at the age of 22, she walked away with a gold medal at the Olympic Games in Sydney, where she competed with a broken foot.
“People will always doubt you,” Wilkinson, 44, told Know Your Value. “They will always tell you that you can’t do something, but [what I’ve learned is] other people’s opinions don’t define you … If you have a big dream, chase after it and do everything you can to get it.”
In many ways, Wilkinson has been beating the odds throughout much of her life. Nearly 20 years after winning gold, Wilkinson at the age of 41 — with four children in tow — decided to come out of retirement in attempt to go to the Olympics once again.
In 2008, Wilkinson at the age of 30 initially decided to hang up her suit after competing in her third Olympics because she wanted to start a family with her husband.
Wilkinson (who became an analyst for NBC Sports) and her husband initially struggled to get pregnant. After a while, the couple began the adoption process in 2009. But about a year into the process in 2010, Wilkinson and her husband found out they were pregnant. She eventually gave birth to Arella early 2012 and adopted Zoe from China at the end of 2012. And in 2014, Wilkinson gave birth to her son, Zodak.
While covering the 2016 Olympics in Rio, Wilkinson started to consider returning to the sport. “Maybe I should give it a whirl,” she remembered thinking.
So in 2017 – as a mom of three kids ages 6, 5 and 3 at the time – with one more on the way from Ethiopia – Wilkinson began planning her diving comeback. Her goal was to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Wilkinson was met with a series of challenges. She underwent spinal surgery in 2018 and then later the Covid-19 pandemic shut down her training facilities. Wilkinson also brought home Dakaia, her fourth child, from Ethiopia in 2018.
Still, she managed to qualify for the U.S. Olympic trials in Indianapolis. And nearly 13 years after stepping away from the sport she loved, the 43-year-old mom qualified for the 10-meter final. While her 10th place finish didn’t allow her to compete in Tokyo (only the top two finishers advanced), Wilkinson secured her spot in history.
Wilkinson recounted her decision to mount her comeback, noting the thought of putting on a swimsuit and training again at age 39, especially after giving birth to two children, was daunting. “It was really hard to get back in a swimsuit and show up on the pool deck,” she said.
At the time, diver Kassidy Cook was training for the 2016 games at Wilkinson’s same pool. Wilkinson recalled, “The last time I had really seen Kassidy, she was about 12 … and I was 30 years old training for the Olympics.”
Wilkinson joked, “The last time [Cook] saw me, I was this amazing athlete. And now when she sees me, [what if she thinks] ‘oh my gosh who is this fat old lady?’ … It took me a month to really work up the courage to just do it. Finally, I [said to myself], “Screw it. I just want to find out if I can do this or not.”
Wilkinson practiced when her kids were at school, “All the kids were in preschool at the time, so I would come over [to the pool] one day for one hour a week … it just felt so good to be back, it felt like home.”
Even though she didn’t advance to Tokyo, Wilkinson is still training and looks forward to what her diving future may hold.
She has also published a book, “Life at 10 Meters: Lessons from an Olympic Champion.” She has also found a new passion of helping athletes build their mental toughness and created an online course for them called “Confident Competitor. Aside from launching her new business with one-on-one coaching. She also has a podcast, The Pursuit of Gold.
“While my kids are my priority, I think what I realized is I can still have dreams and do really cool things, and bring my kids along with me,” Wilkinson said. “I want to encourage moms – that just because you’re a mom – your life isn’t over. Your life is better now because you get to do it with a sidekick.”