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25 February 2009

Diver Brittany Viola finds her place away from the water

She takes three simple and sure steps to the edge. She throws out her arms, pushes up on the tip of her toes, calmly closes her eyes and falls freely through the afternoon sky. Mere moments before she meets the world below her, she tucks in her arms, points her feet and pierces the clear, blue water with a quiet, perfect dive, leaving barely a ripple. She shakes the water out of her ears, climbs back up to her throne in the sky and does it again and again.

Since her arrival at the University of Miami in 2006, diver Brittany Viola has dominated the 10-meter platform, capturing both the ACC and NCAA titles.

Now a junior, she shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. She was recently named to the USA diving roster for the 2009 FINA World Championships in Rome, and last weekend, she defended two of her ACC championships, with first place finishes in the one-meter springboard and the 10-meter platform.

“She’s not just a great diver,” said Randy Ableman, the coach of UM’s diving team. “She’s way more than that. She puts energy into so many other things.”

Viola, who placed fourth in platform diving at the 2008 U.S. Olympic trials, won the 2008 NCAA platform title last March and became one of four women in Hurricane history to capture a national diving championship.

Ableman has witnessed Viola develop into a well-rounded athlete during her years at the U.

“She’s headed for more greatness,” he said.

With her success, it’s hard to believe that the 5’5″ Orlando, Fla., native was not always a diver.

She competed as an elite international-level gymnast until the age of 13, when conflicts with her coach presented her with the opportunity to move to Ohio and train with another top instructor, an offer she declined. A few months later, the swim coach at Lake Preparatory High School spotted her fooling around on the diving boards during P.E. class, and, soon after, she was introduced to Jay Lerew, the diving coach of Team Orlando Diving.

Two years later, Viola joined USA Diving.

“It’s amazing how much the gymnastics comes into play,” she said. “Handstands were ingrained in me. The only difference is that you land on your head instead of your feet. Oh, and I had to learn to plug my nose.”

Five days a week and twice a day, she practices. In between, Viola attends class and spends her free time on schoolwork. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday, she has therapy in the mornings to work on her shoulders and her wrist.

“Her whole life has been sports and going to school,” said her mom, Kathy Viola.

“My captain,” as Ableman affectionately calls her, grew up in a family that speaks sports as a second language.

Her father, Frank Viola, was a starting pitcher in the major leagues with the Minnesota Twins, New York Mets, Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays. He and Viola share the same birthday, passion and type-A personality.

Occasionally, when Viola pulls off a difficult dive, Ableman will call her “Sweet Music,” a nickname given to her father during his time in baseball.

Older brother Frankie played in the minors for the Chicago White Sox and her younger sister Kaley plays volleyball for Winthrop University.

After her NCAA victory, it would’ve been easy for Viola to bask in her glory, but that wasn’t the case. When Viola speaks of success, she never focuses on personal accomplishments. In fact, she never mentions that she is the team’s captain. She’d rather talk about how three of her teammates have competed in the Olympics.

“Our team chemistry is what makes me excited to come to practice,” she said. “My teammates have the same kind of success that I do, so it brings us all up to the same level, and we’re able to support and appreciate each other and what we’re doing.”

About two years ago, Viola said she struggled with finding an identity outside of diving.

“I felt like I wasn’t good enough to be in school or have great relationships,” she said. “I felt like I had one purpose, and that purpose was diving.”

After her friend Heather introduced her to the University Baptist Church Miami, she was able to find her personal identity through God, which revolved around more than just diving.

An electronic media and sports administration major, Viola has made the dean’s list every semester since she came to UM. She hopes to one day work in sports management or as a diving commentator.

“[Her accomplishments thus far] are just the tip of what she can do,” Ableman said. “There’s work to be done, but in more ways than one, she’s right on schedule.”

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