During the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia, Laura Wilkinson won the gold medal in platform diving a few months after she had broken her foot in a training accident. She went on to become the only woman in history to win Platform Diving Gold at the Olympics, the World Cup, and the World Championship. Laura credits her success, not just to hard work and dedication, but also to the guidance she’s gotten from her Christian faith – a faith she had drifted away from for a while. Laura recently joined me on “Christopher Closeup” (full podcast here) to discuss her spiritual journey and how she wants to help the next generation of athletes. Here are some excerpts from our conversation:
TR: I know you lost a couple of people close to you (in 1997) and that put you back on the path to finding God…When (those deaths) shook you, how did that affect your approach to diving?
Laura Wilkinson: I was kind of lost after losing them. I withdrew from a lot of people. I was just afraid of losing someone else. My grades started slipping in school and I thought diving is all I’ve got left at this point. I thought it was the only thing I had control of so I wrapped my life in it. Then I started getting disoriented in the air…The one thing that I thought made my life stable was totally slipping away…That’s when I realized what I was missing. I didn’t know what God wanted to do with my life but I knew I needed Him to fix it and…to be the center of it and to put my pieces back together…I actually rededicated my life to Him in the middle of a diving meet. The way it’s intertwined has really made me love the sport because God used it to bring me to my knees and bring me back to Him. He also lifted me back up through it so it’s just made diving that much more special to me.
TR: When you look back on that period now, what difference did not having that focus on God have on you mentally, emotionally or just on your life in general?
Laura Wilkinson: It’s shown me what life is like when the decisions I make (are based) on what I think is best and then it doesn’t turn out that way. But then when I trust God – and sometimes he takes me on a totally different path than what I think I should be doing - but yet things always seem to turn out so well. He just is able to make a beauty out of the messes that I make.
TR: When you won the Olympic gold in 2000 in Sydney, do you have one memory that stands out above all the others?
Laura Wilkinson: The moment that I love the most was before my last dive, I was up on the 10 meter and – I knew that I was diving really well, and I knew because of the crowd that I was in the medal hunt. But I had no idea that I was in first place…I couldn’t see the scoreboard…I just realized in that moment ‘I am standing up here on top of the world living out my dream. Whether I win or lose, I’m in the middle of it.’ The realization that I was getting the opportunity to live that dream out was just the coolest feeling.
TR: I’ve seen people comment that you smile during even the most tense situations. Where does that ability come from?
Laura Wilkinson: Happiness involves our happenings and our circumstances around us, but joy you can have any time because your strength relies on God…He’s given me a passion for the sport and allowed me to do it – and that gives me joy because I’m doing it for Him.
TR: You mentioned that you appreciate God when you’re winning or losing. I imagine when you’re winning the gold, it’s probably easy to thank God. But when the medals don’t come and when disappointment follows, do you have to work harder to remember that God is with you during those times?
Laura Wilkinson: It’s easy to be thankful when things go well and it’s hard to be thankful when things don’t. One of the things I’ve learned in the last 10 years is how to thank God even when things aren’t going well…When things aren’t going my way, I can still find things to thank God for – for my life, for my family, for how big He is and how awesome He is, and for creating this place and all the people in it. There’s always reasons to find thankfulness for God…When you’re able to do that, it melts away all the stuff going on, and your problems seem really small compared to how awesome He is.
TR: On the other side of that coin – when things are going well, do you ever have the temptation to fall back into the old pattern of focusing mainly on yourself?
Laura Wilkinson: Yeah, I think that’s really easy to do. I don’t even think it’s always conscious. When things are going well you don’t talk to God as much because you don’t need Him. I think God does His most powerful work a lot of times when we’re on our knees, when we’re broken. That’s when He molds us the most. But hopefully when you learn how to thank Him when times are rough, you’ll also thank Him when it’s great. I’m learning both, I’m still learning.
TR: I know one of your goals in retirement is to work through The Laura Wilkinson Foundation. What do you want to accomplish with your foundation:
Laura Wilkinson: They’re tearing our pool down on January 4, 2009 so my big goal is to raise money through the foundation to build a new facility for my team and my community because they’ll have nowhere to go. We had eleven divers qualify for the Olympic trials this year; two made the Olympic team. We had two girls win Junior World silver medals last month. We’ve just got this huge legacy of a team and they’re not going to have a pool to train in…I just don’t want o see their dreams die. I want to help them live those out.
(To lownload the free podcast of the full interview with Laura Wilkinson, visit www.christophers.org/closeuppodcast.)