SYDNEY, Australia - Nobody is supposed to beat China's Dream Diving Team in the women's 10-meter platform.
But there was Laura Wilkinson last night, lugging around a boot to cushion a right foot that was broken in March, climbing up three stories so she could hurl herself off a ledge. Dive after dive, she began by reciting a Bible verse and ended with a tiny splash, somersaulting and spinning on her way down, causing hardly a ripple on the water even as she was wreaking havoc in her sport.
In one of those old-fashioned Olympic tales, the kid from nowhere got the gold.
"It's like a dream," Wilkinson said, her eyes rimmed red and an American flag draped across her right shoulder as she wandered beneath the stands, dazed by what she had overcome and what she had done.
The dream was as improbable as any at the Summer Olympics. China's Li Na, a diving ballerina, and Sang Xue, a wisp with a fearless streak, were supposed to duel for the gold.
But along came Wilkinson, 22, of The Woodlands, Texas, springing her surprise, climbing from eighth to first in a taut final round in which the U.S. claimed its first gold in the event since 1964.
Wilkinson scored 543.75 points and won by the slimmest of margins, 1.74 points over Li, and 3.60 over a Canadian attorney named Anne Montminy. Sang was fourth, so distraught by her performance that she appeared to be crying as she prepared for her final dive.
But Wilkinson was eerily calm in a competition she almost didn't make. She broke her right foot in three places while doing a dry-land practice off a small board six months ago. Her coach, Ken Armstrong, recalled going to her house the morning after, when she was sleepy and on painkillers, and telling her: "I don't care if your leg is cut off. You're making the team."
Wilkinson wasn't so sure.
"Oh, gosh, the day I broke my foot I thought my dreams were over," she said. "I thought everything was lost at that moment. God works in mysterious ways."
Even while wearing a cast, Wilkinson practiced six hours a day. When the cast came off, she practiced her dives underwater before going back on the platform. A bone still juts out, but that doesn't stop her from performing.
"When the foot broke, there was a sense of urgency I've never seen in her," Armstrong said.
But at the Olympics, Wilkinson relaxed. Before every dive, she steadied her nerves with an unchanging routine.
Wilkinson explained: "First, I say a Bible verse - 'I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.' Then, I say, '1-2-3, go. ' "
And then, there was nothing but poetry in flight.
She had to give the performance of her life to beat Li, who was diving before she could swim, and who dared to dream of following in the footsteps of her idol, China's peerless Fu Mingxa.
It was the third dive in the five-dive final that put Wilkinson in first, a reverse 2 1/2 somersault in the tuck position, which lighted up the scoreboard with 8.5s, 9.0s and 9.5s.
But it was the fourth dive that was her biggest test, an inward 2 1/2 somersault in a pike position. She had to come agonizingly close to the ledge, jumping off her sore foot and overcoming her fears.
"It was the same action that I hit my foot and broke it on," she said. "I was kind of nervous about it. It was worth risking."
As she prepared for the dive, her coach brought her close and conjured the memory of Hilary Grivich, a one-time gymnast who nearly made the Olympic team in 1992 and then switched to diving. Grivich and Wilkinson trained together and were close friends. But Grivich was killed in a car accident two years ago.
"He told me to do it for Hilary," Wilkinson said. "It took me off guard."
Inspired, she stuck the dive and was on her way to the title.
"Hilary was a good friend to all of us," she said. "We had a close team. When we lost her, it was really tough. I still talk to her mom a lot. She came to our going-away get-together before the Olympics."
And then, Wilkinson said of Grivich, "She's still with us every day."
The emotion of the dive and the moment cut through the arena, with the crowd roaring, and Wilkinson emerging from the pool with the narrowest of leads. She still had one dive to go, and nailed that one, too, getting a bearhug from her coach, and getting her gold.
Asked to sum up what happened, Armstrong said, "It's one dive at a time, and magical things happen at the Olympics."