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Sunday, June 13, 2004
Wilkinson holds off Viola

Associated Press

ST. PETERS, Mo. -- Going right to her last dive, Laura Wilkinson survived a scare at the U.S. trials Sunday and earned a chance to defend her gold medal at the Olympics.

Wilkinson, a surprise winner of the 10-meter platform at Sydney four years ago, went to the final round with a scant 5.37-point lead over high schooler Brittany Viola, the daughter of former major league pitcher Frank Viola.

Unlike past years, when the top two in each event made the team, only the winner was guaranteed a spot this time. Wilkinson faced the improbable prospect of missing the team altogether, having already been upset in synchronized 10-meter.

"I was pretty aware of the scores at this contest," Wilkinson said. "I knew I had missed some dives. I wanted to know what I had to do."

Viola, going four divers ahead of Wilkinson, over-rotated the entry on her final attempt, the telltale splash leading to mediocre scores ranging from 5.5 to 6.0.

Still, Wilkinson couldn't afford to bobble on her last dive, a backward pike 2½ somersault with 1½ twists -- the most difficult in her repertoire.

The 26-year-old Texan didn't waver a bit, quickly walking to the edge of the 33-foot-high platform, balancing on her toes and hurling herself toward the pool at more than 30 mph.

She cut through the water with near-perfect form, barely making a ripple. The crowd roared and Wilkinson came up with a smile on her face, not even needing to see the scores to know she was going back to the Olympics.

Her marks: a row of 9s broken up by one 8.5, giving her a total of 878.85 points. The precarious lead became a comfortable victory over Viola, who settled for second with 836.40.

"You can't give up," Wilkinson said. "You've got to come back like a tiger."

Still, it was a surprising performance by the 17-year-old Viola, who just finished her junior year of high school in Orlando, Fla. Her father, a Cy Young winner and World Series MVP, cheered her on from the stands.

Asked if she ever got advice from her father, Viola smiled.

"He has no idea what he's talking about when it comes to diving," she said. "He just says work hard and do your best. He makes me so relaxed when I go out there."

Because of IOC rules limiting the number of spots for each country, Viola won't be on the Olympic team. The second spot in platform will go to the highest-scoring member of the winning synchro team, Sara Hildebrand.

"I'm so happy I finished second," Viola said. "I don't even care."

Hildebrand, who competed in Sydney under her maiden name of Reiling, finished fifth in the individual competition with 809.88 points. She will dive synchro with Cassandra Cardinell, who was eighth on her own.

"We've always had the top two go to the Olympics. But with synchro and trying to figure how to put the best team forward and the numbers restriction, it's hard," Hildebrand said. "The only good thing is we knew beforehand that if you didn't win an event, your chances of making it were slim. That being in your head makes it a little easier."

Kimiko Soldati, who won the 3-meter springboard to claim her first Olympic berth, finished third in platform at 830.43. Her pairing with Wilkinson was favored to win platform synchro, but they were defeated by Hildebrand and Cardinell.

Wilkinson conceded that the thought of missing the Olympics crept into her mind before the last round. But the last dive -- despite its degree of difficulty -- is one of her favorites, and she calmed herself by relying on a strong religious faith.

USA Diving officials undoubtedly breathed a sigh of relief, as well, knowing they wouldn't have to send a team to Athens that didn't include their most prominent diver.

"Brittany Viola did a tremendous job," executive director Todd Smith said. "She really put the pressure on. But Laura performed like a champion. She came through."

After taking a team picture, Wilkinson signed autographs for a group of young fans in the arena lobby.

"I was so nervous for you," one boy said.

"Nothing like a little drama," Wilkinson said, grinning.