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Meet the mom of 4 trying for an Olympic diving comeback at age 43

Laura Wilkinson hopes to write one more chapter in her inspiring comeback by reaching her fourth Olympics.
/ Source: TODAY

Laura Wilkinson is more than twice the age she was when she took home a diving gold medal at the 2000 Olympics, but that hasn't stopped the 43-year-old mother of four from chasing one last Olympic dream.

Wilkinson's improbable journey is on the cusp of an incredible chapter as she is now one step away from earning a spot in her fourth Olympics after initially retiring from diving 13 years ago.

"I'm kind of just surprised I'm doing it, honestly," Wilkinson told Savannah Guthrie on TODAY Friday. "When I retired at 30 I was old back then, so this whole journey has just been a crazy, fun road."

The Houston native has qualified for Sunday's diving finals at the U.S. Olympic trials in her bid to earn a spot on Team USA for next month's Tokyo Olympics.

"I never thought I would get to come back and dive again after I retired 13 years ago," she told NBC Sports after qualifying for the women's platform finals. "So this is really a gift, every dive is a gift. I love doing it and this is really special."

Laura Wilkinson
Laura Wilkinson won gold in women's 10-meter platform diving at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, becoming the first American woman in 36 years to achieve that feat. Shaun Botterill / Getty Images

Her husband, Eriek Hulseman, four children, and her mother have been cheering her on in person this week at the Indiana University Natatorium on the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis campus.

"When you feel called to do something and you're passionate about it, you just want to be all in," she said on TODAY. "It's the drive, it's the love, and I love that my kids get to watch me do this, not just by telling them how to live their lives. But they're seeing me, the blood, sweat and tears that it takes to actually get there."

Making her comeback even more impressive is that Wilkinson underwent a serious spinal surgery in 2018 to repair damage to her neck from all the years of hitting the water at high speeds on her dives. The surgery was the difference between Wilkinson making a run at Tokyo or hanging it up for good.

She decided to take the chance with the procedure even though doctors told her it was possible she could never dive again.

"That's just who I am," she said. "When you feel really called to do something, you've got to be all in. It's never going to be an easy road, but that's what makes the journey worth it. When you get to the other side, whether you achieve all your goals and your dreams or you don't, going through all of that, it refines you as a person, it's walking through that fire, and you become better in that process."

She has chronicled her recovery and return to competition on her YouTube channel, appearing in a neck brace following her surgery.

Wilkinson said in a video that she had a 90-minute surgery to remove two degenerated discs from her neck along with bone spurs. Surgeons used implants to graft the bone together and stimulate bone healing, while also putting a titanium plate behind her esophagus.

Wilkinson is no stranger to inspiring comebacks. She rocketed from eighth place at the start the finals to take home the gold at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, all while nursing a serious foot injury.

She became the first American woman in 36 years to win gold in platform diving, and she remains the last U.S. woman to win an individual diving medal more than two decades later.

The gold medalist is now trying to savor the experience as she prepares for Sunday's finals.

Laura Wilkinson
Wilkinson remains the last U.S. women's diver to take home an individual gold medal, 21 years after she achieved that feat in Sydney. Kirk Irwin / Getty Images

"I feel like God made it very clear that this is where I need to be," she said. "When doors were shut and we thought there was no way through, He made a way. He opened doors that weren't there before. I feel very much like this is exactly where I need to be, I don't know why, but I love getting to do this again. Who knows how long that's for, but I'm just trying to love and soak up every moment."

Wilkinson entered this week's trials facing stiff competition for a spot on Team USA, as 2019 World bronze medalist Delaney Schnell and the three U.S. Olympians from the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016 — Amy Cozad Magana, Katrina Young and Jessica Parratto — all entered vying for spots in the women's platform.

"I just want to put a list together, I want to do everything the best that I can and walk away feeling proud whether I am on that team or not," she said.

She already showed in Sydney that counting her out heading into the finals is a bad idea.

"I guess I like a little drama," she said with a smile.