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September 30, 2000
When the going gets tough...
The Couch Potato
This weekend as usual, I spent most of my time lazing around on my couch and letting my finger do all the exercising. As I flipped through a multitude of channels, I happened to chance upon the Olympics on NBC. Granted that the NBC's presentation of the Olympics has been overly melodramatic and profusely redundant. Yet the Olympics have that certain charm to them that makes you watch the most abstruse of sports. (Try synchronized diving for instance.)
Anyway, the point being, last night I chanced upon the regular 10m platform diving event. I would have normally flipped through the channel to watch the NFL game (where the Redskins humbled the Giants) but a fleeting glimpse of a broad, beaming smile of a young lady caught my eye. Looking demure, yet secure, young, yet extremely mature and poised, she smiled at the crowd perched atop the platform. Laura Wilkinson then took a deep breath and turned around (her face an epitome of concentration), closed her eyes, mentally counted to the eventual leap, and in an effortless, graceful swanlike dive pierced the water and disappeared below the surface and like a masterful thief left no evidence of her entry.
I do not profess any knowledge of the technicalities of the dives, but the little episode that was to unfold shortly had hardly anything to do with the mundane technicalities of diving. Instead it was one singular lesson in optimism.
To give a brief historical perspective of Olympic women's diving, the Americans who had dominated the event in its infancy were rudely pushed off the platform (pun intended) by the Chinese diving machines. The Chinese, who have made an art of the exact science of producing young athletes who shine on the world stage for one Olympics and then are effectively replaced by their younger counterparts, were on their way to a gold medal in 2000 games too. Added to the fact that Wilkinson at 22 was six years older than the youngest Chinese diver was that Wilkinson, in March, broke her right foot in three places during a training accident. A bone still protrudes into the sole of her forcing her to wear a kayak shoe when she walks on deck. She's scheduled for surgery right after the games.
In the finals she started in eighth place on the strength of her performance in earlier rounds and after two of the five dives, was placed fifth. Going into the third round she needed not only to perform a miraculous dive but for three other opponents to fail miserably for her to have any chance of a medal. She went up to the scaffold, ever the grinning one. A moment later she had performed a near-perfect 21/2 somersault (or so they tell me) and secured 9.0 -- 9.5 all around. It was now up to the Chinese. Rest assured they choked on the dive. And so did the Canadians. Through what turned out to be an almost comical falling apart of five world class divers, Laura Wilkinson of the United States had shot to the first place. But that wasn't going to be enough. She needed another very good fourth dive to hold off the Chinese and the Canadians. Come the time the diving version of Cinderella would turn in another near perfect dive never forgetting to smile at the crowd and her family as broadly as I have seen anyone at the games. The restas they say is history.
With another very good fifth round dive Laura Wilkinson put the gold medal out of the hands of the Chinese and the Canadians. Through an uncomplicatedly simple approach of going out and doing her best and an unbelievably optimistic outlook, she had achieved the impossible. Laura Wilkinson had won the first women's diving gold medal in 36 years. All's well, certainly, that ends well as my good friend the bard might be eager to point out. But that would be missing the wood for the trees. For Laura Wilkinson I don't think it would have mattered. When she made that incredible dive in the third round, she must have known, winning the gold would be nothing short of a miracle. But she never fazed. Never let negativity get her down. She just smiled turned around and dived.
If in fact she had done a belly flop and completely ruined her chances, she still would have got up there on the platform and smiled broadly before her next dive.
To the free spirit in Laura Wilkinson, about which the much-hyped Olympics are actually about, I take my hat off. That little dose of optimism and poise in the face of defeat will be the elixir on which I will survive a few more days before the cynic in me returns from his much-needed vacation.
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