By: Shannon Whitaker
If there was any doubt that the baseball gene had skipped Brittany Viola, she eradicated it last year in her family’s Florida backyard.
The daughter of former major league pitcher Frank Viola had been asked to throw out the first pitch at a University of Miami baseball game to celebrate her second NCAA championship in platform diving. She asked her dad and her brother, Frankie — also a baseball player — to help her prepare.
“I threw my first ball, and it veered right and hit my dog in the face,” Brittany said. “My brother said, ‘Oh, geez, this is where we’re starting?’ It was bad.”
Viola joked that her single public appearance on a pitcher’s mound might have caused more stress for her parents than any diving meet. Their anxiety is likely to reach a new high during this week’s U.S. Olympic diving trials, which are being held through June 24 in the King County Aquatic Center in Federal Way, Wash.
Viola, 25, is among the favorites in the women’s 10-meter platform competition, in which the top two divers earn berths in next month’s London Olympics.
In addition to the NCAA platform titles she won in 2008 and 2011 while competing for Miami, Viola has won two U.S. championships and placed 10th at last year’s world championships. That has awed her father, who isn’t sure where she got the diving gene. Frank Viola was the MVP of the 1987 World Series, but readily admits he has a fear of heights.
Frank, now a pitching coach for the New York Mets’ Class A affiliate in Brooklyn, won’t be able to attend the trials. He already has worked out a deal, though, to leave his team and go to London should Brittany make the Olympics. No matter the outcome, he already admires how his daughter has continued climbing despite injuries and near-misses.
“I go up 10 feet on the ladder to put up Christmas lights, and I’m ready to pass out,” Frank Viola said. “I don’t know how the hell she goes up there 35 feet to do all the stuff she does off that platform.”
Born in St. Paul, Minn., Brittany Viola originally believed that gymnastics would become her gateway to the Olympics. By the time she was 8 years old, she was training eight hours a day. By age 13, she was burned out on a sport that was consuming her life.
Viola was playing around on the diving board during a physical education class when her middle school’s swim coach spotted her. Impressed by the flips and twists she had learned in gymnastics, he invited her to join the team.
Three years later, Viola won a junior national title in platform. At age 17, she nearly made the U.S. team for the 2004 Athens Olympics with a second-place finish in platform at the Olympic trials, but a selection committee chose someone else. Viola earned a bronze medal in the junior world championships that year, and began an outstanding career at Miami in 2006.
“When I quit gymnastics, I thought my (Olympic) dream was over,” she said. “My family didn’t want me to quit, because they saw the potential in me to do something wonderful in that sport. When I started diving and realized I had that potential again, I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, the dream can be alive again!’ ”
There would be some roadblocks. Viola battled an eating disorder as a teen, then a foot injury that required two surgeries and caused her to miss the 2010 season.
In 2011, she reached her peak. Her experience, perspective and good health led her to a pair of national titles, her second NCAA crown and her best showing ever at the world championships.
After finishing fourth in platform in the 2008 Olympic trials, Viola said she is diving better than ever as she enters this week’s competition.
She also made sure the dog can rest easy. She spent two hours practicing her throwing skills and managed to deliver that opening pitch without incident — proving she possesses her father’s tenacity, if not his baseball gene.
“It’s wonderful to be able to root for her and support her,” Frank Viola said. “Her attitude right now is the best I’ve ever seen it. To see how far she’s come, it’s amazing.”
Brittany Viola, won the women’s 10-meter platform at the U.S. Olympic trials in June, in her third attempt to make the Olympics.
Viola dominated the competition winning by nearly 60 points ahead of second place Katie Bell, who claimed the other qualifying spot for the London games. Viola scored 86.40 on her second-round dive, an arm-stand back dive from the platform with two somersaults and 1 1/2 twists, getting all “9s” from the judges.
“A greater perspective that this is just another meet,” Viola said of her previous trials experiences. “Although there are a lot of lights and colors and Olympic rings everywhere it comes down to the diver and the platform and that’s something Katie and I can take into the Olympics.”
The twenty-five-year-old Brittany wasted no time in celebrating back home in Miami, upon her arrival, with her church family and friends, and has made it obvious that it is her unwavering faith in God that has and will continue to pave her way to victory.
No doubt, Brittany Ann Viola will keep us inspired for a long time to come!
Shannon is a graduate of University of Florida’s School of Journalism, now a wife and mother of two boys. She is a free-lance writer for several publications, among them being INSPIRED.