Program regains its breath

Red, White & Blue: 2008 NCAA Diver of the Year Brittany Viola was the USA team captain at the 2009 FINA World Championships in Rome. Courtesy Hurricane Sports

It’s 7 a.m.

While most of the campus is still asleep, the Norman Whitten Student Union Pool is as busy as ever, and not with devoted sun worshippers. It’s the University of Miami swimming and diving team starting its morning practice.

Hurricane aquatics has a long and strong history. The women’s swimming teams captured national championships in 1975 and 1976, and the diving team has featured prominent Olympic divers Greg Louganis and Wendy Williams.

The current team has a ways to go before reaching that kind of prominence, but with standout divers Reuben Ross and Brittany Viola, swimmer Annika Saarnak, a wealth of supporting talent and a devoted coaching staff, the team is on the right path.

“This season definitely was a turn around for this program,” Assistant Swimming Coach Tricia Harm said. “Last year they had kind of finished within the bottom of the ACC. This year we moved up.”

Finishing with a 10-7 record, the Canes swam and dove to ninth in the ACC. Last year’s national champion in the three-meter springboard, Ross also earned ACC Men’s Diver of the Year and competed in the Beijing Olympics for his native country, Canada.

Ross received two All-America awards at the NCAA Championships after finishing seventh in the one-meter springboard and seventh in the three-meter. He also had an impressive third-place finish in the 10-meter platform event this year.

After a sophomore campaign in which she was named Co-NCAA Diver of the Year and ACC Women’s Diver of the Year, Viola’s junior season was hampered by a back injury that prevented her from defending her title in the 10-meter platform event.

Injury aside, the coaching staff recognizes the special talent it has on its hands.

“Besides the endless amount of practice, she’s a very talented athlete,” Assistant Diving Coach Dario Di Fazio said. “You need to have a combination of being talented and working hard.”

A change in approach has swept over the team.

“We all came together compared to last year,” Saarnak said. “Ohio State and the ACCs were very successful for us.”

Time will tell if these changes propel the swimming and diving program to the next level.

“We created a culture where we want to be great,” Harm said. “The girls want to be great.”