The Frodo smile of Laura Wilkinson

The great diver's farewell look showed us all how to say goodbye.

Published August 22, 2008 8:25PM (EDT)

Fans of Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy may remember the scene near the end when Frodo boards ship with the elves at the Grey Havens to leave Middle-Earth forever. His friends and comrades realize he's leaving only at the last minute. He embraces each of them in turn, his beloved Sam last, then boards the ship. And as he sails away, he looks back with an unforgettable smile, a smile that says: You were everything to me, and I will carry you in my heart forever. It is a perfectly full smile, brimming with all the bittersweetness of love and loss.

U.S. diver Laura Wilkinson smiled that smile Thursday night.

The great U.S. diver, the heart and soul of the team, a gold medalist in the 10-meter platform at Sydney, was making the final competitive dives of her 15-year career at Beijing. She was beaten up, her 30-year-old body trashed after a decade and a half of throwing herself off the equivalent of a three-story building. And she wasn't going to medal. Unable to enter the water properly because of a triceps injury, she had badly misfired on several of her dives, including a disastrous back three and a half somersault that essentially took her out of the running. In any case, it would have taken a nearly perfect performance from Wilkinson to beat out the top divers, with China's Chen Ruolin winning gold with a gorgeous final dive over the fierce challenge of ice-cool Canadian Emilie Heymans. Wilkinson ended up finishing ninth, and she knew long before the end of the competition that this wasn't going to be her day.

So there Wilkinson was, standing on the platform high above the water, about to make the next-to-last dive of her long and distinguished career. Athletes usually wear their game face at such moments. But as she stood there, she looked down and smiled. It was a long, deep, loving smile, directed at her teammates and friends in the audience who were not so much cheering on their comrade as paying tribute to her. It was Frodo's smile.

And before her last dive, as her teammates rose to give her a standing ovation, she looked down and smiled again, that long, rich, loving smile. A smile that said thank you. A smile that said I have enjoyed it all. A smile that said, win or lose, I am content.

And then, having fully savored the moment, she dove for the last time. She hit it, she went out strong, but it didn't really matter what she did. Because that smile will stay in our memories longer than whatever score she got. It was a farewell smile, to herself as much as to her friends, and it showed us what it means to say farewell with love and without regret. It was gold.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

MORE FROM Gary Kamiya

Related Topics ------------------------------------------