With pressure on, U.S. divers deliver

Updated: August 21, 2004, 1:58 PM ET
By Sherry Skalko | ESPN.com

ATHENS, Greece -- Sara Hildebrand has a knack for drama.

Laura Wilkinson
Laura Wilkinson sits at fourth place. Teammate Sara Hildebrand is ninth.
Her second dive -- a reverse -- in Saturday's women's 10-meter platform semifinals was so poor that hitting the second-best dive of the third round failed to move her in the standings.

So there she stood in 13th place, one spot short of qualifying for the finals -- the same spot she finished in four years ago in Sydney.

"It couldn't have been more pressure-packed," said Hildebrand's coach, Jeff Huber. "It was do or die -- you either get in that top 12 or you're done."

So Hildebrand did, nailing her inward 1½ somersault to vault two spots and finish in 11th place.

"I'm relieved," Hildebrand said, her eyes still watery from crying with her parents and husband, and again in front of the TV cameras. "I did not think I was in there at all. I kind of removed myself from everybody and they all came over and said, 'No, you're in, you're in.' I've just a lot of mixed emotions flying right now."

It was a pressure-packed afternoon for both Hildebrand, 24, and teammate Laura Wilkinson, the defending Olympic gold medalist who also advanced to Sunday's finals on a 10th-place finish. After struggling in the preliminaries -- Wilkinson finished 13th, Hildebrand 14th -- both divers had to move considerably higher in the semifinals to qualify. Wilkinson's 194.52 was the fourth-best total of the day; Hildebrand's 180.96 was ninth. Divers drop their preliminary round scores and carry only their semifinal scores with them into the finals.

"I think Sara and I were in a very good position today because we had to do good [required dives] to get in the finals," Wilkinson said.

Because they were placed fifth and sixth in the dive order, Wilkinson said the U.S. teammates were able to feed off each other.

"When you have a teammate who's supporting you and you're supporting her," Wilkinson said, "there's just so much strength with two people that you don't get with one person."

Now that the hard part is over, both Huber and Wilkinson's coach, Ken Armstrong, expect their divers to be relaxed heading into the medal round.

"[Preliminaries are] like a trials. It's exactly the same as making the team," Armstrong said. "Once you've made it, you can relax a little bit."

Hildebrand, however, might still have a bit of anger lingering from the semifinals. At least that's what Huber hopes.

"She was still mad afterward about missing that reverse," Huber said. "I said, 'Great, take that anger and take it out on your dives tomorrow night.' "

Wilkinson's fourth-place ranking is the same position she was in entering the final round in Sydney, and is an ideal one for the Texas native, who is noted for her steady performances. Her dive rankings in each round on Saturday -- fourth, sixth, fifth and sixth -- are proof.

"It's perfect," Armstrong said. "Remember Sydney? I love that spot. Nothing like being the underdog."

Hildebrand remembers Sydney, too. She said she wasn't upset with how she finished at the 2000 Games and isn't out to restore or establish a reputation on Sunday.

"I'm not going out there trying to prove that I'm here," she said. "I'm already here."

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