Brittany Viola dives during the women's 10-meter platform finals at the 2011 AT&T National Diving Championships

Mark J. Terrill, Associated Press

Brittany Viola: Daughter of the former Twins pitcher is a two-time NCAA and U.S. champion.

Peter H. Bick, USA Olympic

Olympic diving: Ex-Twin Viola's daughter getting closer to Games

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT
  • Star Tribune
  • June 16, 2012 - 9:07 AM

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 Twins 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 the U.S. Olympic diving trials, which begin Sunday. 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.

"It's something she's always dreamed about since she was a little kid, to wear the red, white and blue of the United States. She's worked so hard and come so close over the years. I just pray to God this is her year to be able to take it all in, enjoy it and see where it takes her.''

Born in St. Paul, 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. She accepted for two reasons: diving required less of a time commitment, and it revived her hope of becoming an Olympian.

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, then 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."

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