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Sunday, Jul 23, 2017
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Young skeet champion traded ballet shoes for shotgun

ODESSA

The 13-year-old girl gripped the 12-gauge shotgun. It was the first time the ballet dancer had aimed a gun. She had her finger on the trigger, ready to shoot.

Bang!

The kickback was too much for her frame (she weighed about 90 pounds at the time), and the butt of the gun slammed into her arm. When her dad looked over, he saw tears in her eyes.

"No, you don't have to do it again," he said.

Three years later, she decided to give it another try.

This time, the gun was fitted to her size. And as she walked away from the gun range, she felt something change inside her.

"I just completely fell in love with it," she said.

Now, six years later, Dania Vizzi of Odessa has become an internationally competitive skeet shooter, in a sport where participants use shotguns to break flying clay targets launched mechanically from several angles. The 22-year-old has racked up medals all over the world, competing alongside seasoned Olympians on the USA Shooting team, of which she is a member.

Vizzi narrowly missed becoming an alternate for the two-person women's skeet shotgun team at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Now, she has her sights set on the 2020 team. She trains daily — twice a day at times — at the Silver Dollar Shooters Club in Odessa and participates regularly in competitions. Next up is the Shotgun National Championships in Colorado Springs, Colo., July 8 to 17.

It's been a journey with a strange twist for Vizzi, who spent most of her life on track to becoming a professional ballerina, even training for a summer at the Juilliard School when she was 16.

But just as the competition and culture started to wear on her, she found shooting.

Initially, it was curiosity that led her to ask her dad, A.J. — who has shot competitively for years and now coaches — to try again. Then she got involved on the youth team at Silver Dollar, eventually participating in selection matches for the Junior Olympics. Finally, she caught the attention of coaches from USA Shooting, the national governing body for shooting sports chartered by the U.S. Olympic Committee.

For Vizzi, skeet shooting repurposes all of the skills she spent years crafting in dance, only now her balance and concentration are put behind a barrel, and the stage has turned into a gun range.

But shooting also has something dance never did.

"I was so used to dance being about how tall you are or how thin you are, and I thought it was so cool that it doesn't matter who you are or what you look like (in shooting)," Vizzi said. "You either hit the target or you miss the target."

From the beginning, she was a natural, said Bill Miller, manager at Silver Dollar. The 69-year-old Miller, who has been trap shooting for more than 30 years, said he has seen a lot of "flashes in the pan," but sees something special in Vizzi.

"I would say out of all the shooters I know, (she's) in the top 5 percent," Miller said. "I mean, Dania's Olympic quality."

What sets her apart, Miller said, is her tireless work ethic — her daily practices often lasting several hours. And she does it at a range that has a white banner on which blue letters spell out "Dania's Range," a gift after she won junior gold in 2014 at the World Shooting Championships in Granada, Spain.

Her mother, Doree Vizzi, said the work ethic goes back to her daughter's life in ballet.

"It required so much, literally hours and hours every day, going from school to ballet, (practicing on) Saturdays," she said.

• • •

Miller said that when the club is crowded in the winter, Vizzi can draw 15 to 20 people to her range, all watching her shoot. In terms of accuracy, sometimes she hits every target, he said; other times she might miss maybe three out of 100. Even when she misses target, it doesn't seem to affect Vizzi's mood.

"You don't have to worry about that," Miller said. "She's always up and bubbly."

Part of that comes naturally. But no doubt it also can be attributed to the support Vizzi has in the shooting community.

Whether it's her family, the curious spectators at Silver Dollar, coaches, competitors or sponsors, Vizzi has no shortage of people who encourage her.

"Everyone here is so welcoming," Vizzi said. "I couldn't ask for a better support system."

That support has been invaluable, she said, when it comes to balancing life as an internationally competitive athlete with that of a full-time student at the University of South Florida.

Her mom said probably the largest hurdle for her daughter to overcome has been the obvious one: transitioning between two seemingly disconnected sports with different social circles and lifestyles.

Doree admitted she was shocked when Dania said she was going to put away the ballet shoes for good.

"It was just like, what? Okay," she said. "It took me a minute. It's just odd — ballet and shooting, they're just two different worlds."

• • •

Dania said she's sometime seen as a bit of an outsider in the shooting world and has had to adapt as well.

A part of her is still the girl who dreamed of dancing at an arts academy, and she continues to find time to dance. Even in advertisements for her shotgun sponsor, Perazzi, she poses gracefully, leaning on an upright shotgun while standing on one leg and stretching the other over her head.

"I'm definitely different than 99 percent of people that shoot," she said.

But Vizzi said she doesn't feel pressured or detached from other shooters. While her competition may be more experienced, everyone in the community is welcoming, and it's come to the point where it doesn't feel like her two worlds are mutually exclusive.

"I do both now," she said. "I go wear my red bottoms, but I can still put on my boots."

As she looks ahead, Vizzi is focused on incremental accomplishments. She hopes to compete well enough in the national championships to earn a spot on the national team that will travel to Russia for the world championships in September.

After that, the plan is to make every effort to secure the Olympic spot she missed in 2016.

"Definitely you're going to see me in 2020 (in Tokyo)," she promised.

Vizzi plans to graduate from USF in May and is interested in finding a sports marketing job, maybe with the Tampa Bay Lightning or the New York Yankees. She also wants to give back to the community through coaching and helping younger shooters.

Wherever the future takes her, Vizzi knows one thing that one won't change.

"I'll always keep shooting in my life," she said.

Contact Chris Bowling at cbowling@tampabay.com or at (813) 435-7308. Follow @chrismbowling.


Dania Vizzi's skeet shooting honors

• 2016 National Championships, silver medalist

• 2015 World Championships, junior bronze medalist

• 2015 National Championships, bronze medalist

• 2015 Junior national champion

• 2014 Junior world champion

• 2013 Fall Selection Match, junior champion

• 2013 World Championships, junior silver medalist

• 2013 National Championships, junior silver medalist

• 2013 Junior Olympic champion

• 2013 Spring Selection Match, junior champion

• 2012 Junior Olympic silver medalist

• 2011 National Championships, fourth place

     
   
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