Diving

Miami Diving hopes TV’s ‘Splash’ brings new interest in sport

 

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hcohen@MiamiHerald.com

Can a television competition show tell the story of diving?

Briadam Herrera, 17, laughs at the question as he stands on the sun-baked pool deck at the University of Miami in Coral Gables.

“I don’t think so,” he says.

Briadam has just spent the last two hours executing complicated flips and twists in the air from the 3-meter springboard and the 10-meter platform that towers 33 feet. From up here, the young athlete will plummet to an abrupt stop in 16 feet of water at speeds that top 30 mph.

Briadam, a regional and state champion at Gulliver Preparatory High School, where he is a senior, is also the star diver at Miami Diving, a for-profit kids’ diving program at UM under coach Dario Di Fazio.

Talent, hard work and a forward-looking coach back home in Havana, brought Briadam to this spot.

Splash? Not so much. Briadam says he’s only seen a little bit of the reality program which crowned its winner two weeks ago.

But some locals in the sport hope the wacky TV show, which was based on its Dutch counterpart, brings some attention to the sport of diving in South Florida. While Miami Diving has been a fixture on the UM campus for three decades — and its senior college-level group at the school has placed a diver in every Summer Olympic Games since 1992 — it’s the only kids’ diving program in Miami-Dade. The sport could use a boost.

Miami Diving is one of just four diving programs for athletes 18 and younger in South Florida affiliated with the Gold Coast Diving Association, United States Diving and the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU). The other three are all in Broward County: the Fort Lauderdale Diving Team, Pine Crest Diving in Fort Lauderdale and Divingwell in Plantation.

Miami Diving draws its 38 members, ages 5 to 17, from a large territory that spans Islamorada and Homestead in the south to Hialeah and North Miami.

“A lot of people don’t know there’s a program,” said Di Fazio, 46, who competed for Venezuela in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona and the 1996 Games in Atlanta on springboard and platform. “We do have the best program in the nation at the senior level, but at the age-group level we need to train more kids and have them involved. It takes a good eight years to develop an athlete.”

The state of diving in South Florida could be better, Di Fazio says, but he’s encouraged. “We used to have a lot more talent in the past, but as long as you have one, that’s all you need for the next generation.”

And for Miami Diving, that one appears to be Briadam. The one who, like a Greg Louganis or a Chen Ruolin, might inspire a boy or a girl to pick up the challenging activity which some liken to “gymnastics in the air” and bring glory to a sport that only seems to command the public’s attention every four years through telecasts of the Olympics and, recently, Splash.

The young athlete, who is expected to compete for the University of Miami in the fall under coach Randy Ableman and who has his eye on Rio for the 2016 Olympics, started diving in Havana when he was 8. He idolized Cuban diving champ José Guerra who has competed in four consecutive Olympics starting with the 2000 Games, and American Greg Louganis, the only diver to sweep all the diving events at two consecutive Olympics Games in 1984 and 1988.

Louganis, the star of Splash, trained on the same UM dive tower on a diving scholarship in 1978 in which Briadam practices his own specialty today — the front four-and-a-half flip from the 3-meter springboard and the 10-meter tower.

“They are my heroes,” Briadam says of Guerra and Louganis. “They are amazing, the best in the world.”

His coach in Cuba, Briadam says, recommended the Miami Diving program when his family moved to the States in 2009. Gulliver offered financial aid last year and, in November, Briadam was named 1A diving state champion at the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) Swimming and Diving Championships in Orlando. At the meet, he won gold in the 1-meter springboard with an inward two-and-a-half tuck and outscored the number two diver by 75 points with a total score of 569.25. In January, Briadam was named an All-Dade athlete in the swimming and diving category by The Miami Herald.

“Takes a lot of practice, effort,” Briadam says. “It’s not a sport anyone can do. It takes someone special to do diving, and that’s what I like.”

And, for some, diving is just plain fun.

“When you go down you’re all dry in the air and then you hit the water and you’re all wet. It feels good,” says Gabriella Toyos, 9, a third-grader at St. Theresa School in Coral Gables.

Before taking to the tower, students practice skills on dry-land, using belts and a trampoline. The little ones start on springboard and graduate to the 5-meter platform which rises 16 feet above the water.

“It’s scary at first,” Gabriella says, but she smiles and accents the “at first” part so you know she’ll be back up there at the next practice. As the team members gain strength and confidence, Di Fazio says, they are ready to master the towers.

“The most challenging thing is to go through the fear of moving from easy steps to the more advanced skills,” he says. “We try to work with that in dry land and make sure we teach all the skills on spotting belts and trampolines. By the time they get to the water, it’s the same exercise. Mentally, it’s a hard thing, especially for kids, but you take a step, go ahead, and you can do it.”

ABC’s recently concluded Splash borrowed the concept of Dancing With the Stars — pair celebrities with pros and watch them flounder or flourish on their way to a big, glass trophy. Splash featured Louganis, 53, as a mentor and coach. Recent Olympic diving champ David Boudia was one of the judges. Celebs, ranging from 400-pound comedian Louie Anderson to basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, vied for the championship.

Louganis didn’t baby the cast. Finalists Drake Bell, Nicole Eggert and fearless winner Rory Bushfield, a Canadian free skier champ, performed some impressive and potentially dangerous routines off of the 10-meter platform.

Di Fazio says it’s too soon to tell whether the TV show will have an impact on diving in South Florida.

“It was good because it exposed diving, it shows the pool and the sport. Hopefully, it puts our sport out there. Maybe it will encourage parents to bring their kids to the pool or a kid to say, ‘I want to do that.’ I’d like to measure that in the summer to see whether people saw the show or were inspired by it,” Di Fazio says.

“Florida diving has come down from 20 years ago. We used to have hundreds of kids. Now, it’s not the same, they compete with too many other sports like baseball, football or soccer. We had 60 kids after the Olympics, but then the winter comes and it gets cold. Maybe the show Splash helps, and hopefully they’ll stay. We want all kind of kids… kids with a gymnastics background, and kids who have never dove, as well, are welcome to try,” he says.

“All you need is a bathing suit and sun block.”

Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.

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