Laura Wilkinson saved her best dive for last, allowing the defending Olympic gold medalist to escape the preliminaries of 10-meter platform Friday.
The 26-year-old Texan was mired in 18th place -- none of her first four dives was especially sharp -- and facing the prospect of being eliminated from
her only event of the Athens Games. Only the top 18 moved on to Saturday's semifinals.
But Wilkinson came through on her final dive, a backward 2½ somersault with 1½ twists. Her spins were crisp, her entry into the water smooth,
resulting in scores of 7.5 and 8.0 across the board. That was enough to move the American up to 13th with 314.19 points.
"I'm confident in all my dives,'' Wilkinson said.
"Unfortunately, it wasn't there today, but it's going to make me come back strong.''
Olena Zhupina of Ukraine led the preliminaries with 371.10 -- a bit of a surprise considering China's domination of the sport. The Chinese had won
four straight women's platform titles until Wilkinson's improbable victory at the 2000 Sydney Games.
Lao Lishi settled for fourth after the preliminaries with 348.93, while teammate Li Ting was seventh at 339.69. The duo teamed up to win the
synchronized platform Monday.
"They're pretty new girls, so they're feeling the pressure,'' U.S. coach Ken Armstrong said. "But they'll be tough in the finals.''
Australia's Loudy Tourky was second with 367.23, followed by Canada's Emilie Heymans at 351.12.
Sara Hildebrand of St. Paul, Minn., who competed in the Sydney Games under her maiden name of Reiling, also advanced to the semifinals. She was just
behind Wilkinson in 14th place with 308.49, scoring well on her last two dives to move up 10 places.
"I'm definitely an underdog,'' Hildebrand said. "I've never done well on platform internationally.''
Wilkinson rallied from fifth place to win gold in 2000, taking advantage when everyone ahead of her made major mistakes. She was the first American
woman since 1964 to win the 10-meter platform.
Her victory was derided by some rivals as a fluke, inspiring Wilkinson to return for another Olympics and prove she is one of the world's best.
First, she had to survive a scare at the U.S. Olympic trials in June. Wilkinson went to the final round with a narrow lead, but nailed the dive to
hold off Brittany Viola, the high school daughter of former major league pitcher Frank Viola.
The individual platform is Wilkinson's only chance to win a medal in Athens. She failed to qualify in synchronized platform, finishing second at the
trials while paired with Kimiko Soldati.
Wilkinson competed four years ago with bone protruding into the sole of her foot, the result of a training accident six months before the Olympics.
She was forced to wear a kayak shoe on deck, taking it off only when she dove, and underwent surgery right after the Games.
This time, Wilkinson was healthy and anxious to join American Pat McCormick (1952, 1956) and China's Fu Mingxia (1992, 1996) as back-to-back winners
of the women's platform.
The field will be reduced again during the semifinals, with only the top 12 advancing to Sunday's final.