A North Huntingdon girl has earned her first-degree black belt in karate at age 11, persevering through an inflammatory bowel disease that can be debilitating.
Gabriella “Gabby” Viola, 11, the daughter of Jennifer and William Viola Jr., became the youngest holder of a black belt among those who have trained at Allegheny Shotokan Viola Karate Dojo, a North Huntingdon karate school operated by her father, Bill Viola Jr., and founded in 1969 by her grandfather, Bill Viola Sr. She earned her black belt on Aug. 17, which was her birthday.
“Gabby has what I call ‘zentensity,’ a body-mind connection that pushes past what you thought was possible,” her father said.
Having a black belt runs in the family. Both her father and grandfather have their black belts, as well as four of her aunts — Addie, Jacque, Ali and Joce Viola. Fewer than 100 people who have trained at Allegheny Shotokan over the past 50 years have earned a black belt, her father said.
“I wanted to be like my dad. My black belt is better than any trophy,” said Gabby, who shared the honor with six teammates who also took the test.
The youngster, a fifth grade student at Norwin’s Hillcrest Intermediate School, has been “kicking before she could walk,” her father said.
“She literally grew up in the dojo,” said her mother, Jennifer, of the karate school. “It was like her playground.”
Gabby, who trains three or four times a week, said she underwent a six-hour test in which her skills were judged to earn her black belt. She had gone through a four-month process which involves learning the history of martial arts, Japanese terms, hundreds of techniques, endless combinations, self-defense maneuvers and physical endurance.
Gabby has accomplished this while suffering from inflammatory bowel disease, her father said. It is an incurable form of colitis, an autoimmune condition that attacks the healthy tissue in the intestine. She has dealt with bouts of severe bleeding, dehydration, abdominal pain, cramping and joint and skin inflammation, her father said. She has had to endure a number of setbacks and emergency room visits.
“Martial arts teaches perseverance, and she decided that nothing would stop her from earning her black belt,” her father said.
She undergoes monthly infusions of medication at Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh as part of the treatment regime that includes medical trials, diets, medication, steroids, tests and therapy.
Despite the risk of having a flareup of major symptoms after a period of remission, Gabby has competed nationally. She won a gold medal at a World Karate Commission National Championships for martial arts in 2019 and earned a spot on Team USA. She has been recognized as a five-time state champion and ranked first in the North American Sport Karate Association for black belt sparring in 2020.
As for earning her second-degree black belt, Gabby said she must wait until she is 16 to take that test.
She is joined in her family’s love of the sport by her 4-year-old brother, William Viola IV, who trains in the “Nursery Ninja” program and holds a yellow stripe belt.
Gabby is an ambassador for the sport, promoting it to other youngsters.
“They should try it. It is fun, and it is good exercise,” Gabby said.
“Zentensity” is a phrase coined by her father and author Bill Viola Jr. Zentensity is a manifestation of mind over matter, pushing someone to new levels of achievement. Read more in the book CommonSensei
Night of Steel featured speakers – The Viola Family.
Gabby Viola was a featured “Impact Speaker” the Western Pennsylvania/West Virginia chapter of the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation for our third annual Night of Steel, a virtual celebration of all things Pittsburgh!
In 2018, Gabby was diagnosed with bowel disease, an incurable inflammatory form of colitis. You’d never know she is sick on the outside, but on the inside, it is killing her: severe bleeding, dehydration, abdominal pain, cramping, fatigue, inflammation of joints, skin and eyes, and a swelling colon just off the top of my head. She was only seven years old; no family history of the illness! Why oh why?! Long story short, we continue to do what we have to do: Specialists, naturopathic and holistic experts, trials, infusions, diets, meds, steroids, tests, and therapy — the works. All you can do is pray for remission.
She has made it her goal to “fight” to find a cure and is an advocate for the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation.
The fundraiser was presented by UPMC and the UPMC Health Plan. The evening featured a craft cocktail experience with the Cocktail Guru and standup comedy from well-known comedian, Casey Balsham.
Please join us on our mission to find cures for inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and provide care and resources to patients and their caregivers. With your support, the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation has invested over $350 million to fund critical research for treatments and cures.
The Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation is a non-profit, volunteer-driven organization dedicated to finding the cures for Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. It was founded in 1967 by Irwin M. and Suzanne Rosenthal, William D. and Shelby Modell, and Henry D. Janowitz, M.D. in New York City. The Western Pennsylvania/West Virginia Chapter is headquartered in Pittsburgh and serves the Western PA region including Altoona, Erie, and State College. We also serve the entire state of West Virginia.
The Car Crash that ended my Karate Career… or did it?
I’m in my early 20’s, and I had just graduated college. Pitt was a great university, but I didn’t attend for the academics. Nope, I chose this campus because I needed to commute and train 5 days a week. The 1999 USA Karate National Championships were slated for mid-August and I was a defending Gold 🥇, poised to repeat. My hard work was finally paying off.
Up until now, I was groomed to be a champion🏆. It was all I knew: school, karate, eat, sleep, repeat. No other activities were allowed! Day in, day out I had tunnel vision toward Olympic greatness. I was not naturally gifted with speed or size by any means. In fact, my high school my driver’s license listed me as 5’6” and 105 lbs. Yea, I was a twerp. How the heck did I become an All-American? I had no choice — Sensei says, “Be a champion,” and you know the rest. I had to hold my own against animals at the dojoand bullies at school who thought karate was a joke. Toughness and tenacity were byproducts of survival. I sure took some lumps and abuse, but when my growth spurt hit, it was payback👊. By the time I entered college, I was 6 foot tall with something to prove. I fought in -60 KG category (that’s still only 132 lbs). Hardly menacing, but my confidence grew with my height. I was lean, mean, and kickin’ ass. I didn’t have all the finesse yet, but I unleashed my frustrations in the ring. Win or lose, they remembered the name.
Some careless jagoff in a box truck literally rear-ended my dreams — Fractured neck 😱😥🤕 (summer of 1999). It was earth-shattering. I was just coming into my prime and now my new uniform was a neck brace. Diagnosis from the doc, “Don’t fight anymore.” My heart sank into my shoes and the walls closed in. I had never looked past karate — ever. I was 😡 at the world, and needed a reboot. So I followed an old saying, “Go West young man.”
I took a leap of faith and moved to Los Angeles to learn the entertainment biz 🎥. What?!? I wanted to be a promoter just like my Sensei, and thought Hollywood 🎬 was the ticket. I knew absolutely nothing about the industry, so my friends and family were skeptical to say the least. Fake it till you make it, right? I borrowed my dad’s swagger and walked in like I owned the place. I had instant success. Confidence is contagious, there is no other explanation. SAG card in hand, I worked with A-listers; everyone from Britney Spears to Arnold Schwarzenegger, and all along the way, despite my decision, no one was prouder of me than my father. I knew a conventional job wasn’t for me.
I went to Hollywood 🎬, crushed it, and came back a new man. I missed my college sweetheart (and future wife), my family, and dojo. I refused to let this car crash define me. What should have “broke me; woke me.” It took some Cali🌞for it to sink in, but being a Sensei was in my blood. When I returned to Pittsburgh, the students rejoiced. I didn’t realize how much they missed and needed me. It was just the therapy I needed.
The car crash that should have “broke” me “woke” me.
Being a Sensei was my destiny, and I turned the negative into a positive. That’s right, it can either break you or wake you. My passion inspired new avenues including coaching, promoting and of course confirming my calling to be a lifelong Sensei.
Sensei Bill Viola Jr Karate 空手 🥋 Sport Karate Highlights from the 1990s. Viola was a champion karate competitor in kata, kumite and kobudo. He retired from tournaments in 1999 after a career ending car crash accident. #karate #kumite #pittsburgh #irwin #northhuntingdon #alleghenyshotokan #norwinninjas USA Karate National Champion
Billy and Addie Viola stood on the sidelines and patiently watched 11 members of Father’s Allegheny Shotokan Karate School in North Huntingdon Township win 36 medals at USA Karate’s 25th National Championship in Canton, Ohio.
There was no doubt the siblings were happy for the students – most of whom they helped train – but there were times when they stared out at the mats and wondered, “Why us?”
Billy and Addie Viola, who had competed and won medals at the national competition 18 years in a row, wanted desperately to compete in the tournament, but it wasn’t going to happen this year. They had to miss nationals for the first time in their lives due to off-mat incidents out of their control.
Billy Viola, 22, a six-time Pennsylvania state karate champion from North Huntingdon Township, was unable to defend his national title win of a year ago because he was recovering from a cervical sprain and a small fracture in his neck that he suffered in a car accident two weeks earlier on Route 30 in North Huntingdon Township.
Addie Viola, 20, also an accomplished karate champion, was involved in a separate car accident on Route 30 three weeks earlier. She suffered head and neck injuries, including a gash on her forehead that will require several plastic surgeries to correct.
The Violas’ father, Bill, was concerned for his son and daughter, not only because of their injuries, but because they trained all year for nationals but could not compete.
“That was very disturbing,” Bill Viola said. “It was something that just happens. After all the training, sweat and time they put in, and then this happens.”
Even though the Violas were unable to compete at nationals, they still wanted to be there for their students. The only problem was they were in Denver, Col., with their University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg ecology class when the championships started. The Violas talked the rest of the class into jumping in the van and finishing their trip early so they could return in time to see some of the matches in Canton. Twenty-nine consecutive hours of driving later, the Violas, exhausted and sore, arrived at the Civic Center to the surprise of their students.
“I’ve been in martial arts since I was 3 years old, and this is one of the rare times I had to miss the national championships,” Billy Viola said. “Being a defending champion, it was difficult to watch. But I had to be there for my students.”
Addie Viola agreed.
“It was tough to watch and not be able to do it,” she said. “We still went and watched and supported them.”
Their students didn’t disappoint. Billy Leader, a 7-year-old from NorthHuntingdon Township, won two golds in weapons and advanced synchronized weapons, a silver in kata and a bronze in sparring. His 5-year-old brother, Dominic, the youngest representative Allegheny Shotokan sent to the championships, won a gold in weapons and silver medals in kata and sparring.
Ian Elms, 7, of North Huntingdon Township, brought home three gold medals in weapons, sparring and advanced synchronized weapons team. Ian also earned a bronze in kata.
Leah Ray, a 10-year-old from Larimer, won a silver in sparring and a bronze in kata. Another 10-year-old, Brian Hails from Jeannette, led the 10-13 age group advanced synchronized weapons team to a gold medal and won a silver in kata.
Rick Fox, 17, of Irwin, won golds in weapons and adult synchronized weapons team and a silver in sparring. Theresa Perry, an 18-year-old intermediate green belt from McKeesport, earned gold in weapons, silver in kata and bronze in sparring.
Two intermediate green belts, 22-year-old Christina Adams of Irwin and 24-year-old Tim Meyer of Greensburg, won golds in kata and sparring and silver in weapons. Meyer also captured a gold medal in adult synchronized weapons and a bronze medal in advanced adult team fighting.
Nick Cyktor Jr. of West Newton, who was competing in his first national championship, won a gold in sparring and a bronze in adult team fighting. Cyktor, a beginner white belt, impressed his teammates by taking on black belts in the team event despite a lack of experience.
Rocky Whatule, a 21-year-old advanced black belt from Jeannette, led the adult synchronized weapons team to a gold medal, won a silver in kata and bronze medals in weapons, sparring and adult team fighting.
The Violas’ students and training partners missed seeing them compete. Whatule, who learns and trains with Billy Viola, said this was the first tournament he attended that Billy didn’t compete in.
“As soon as I’d get done with a fight (at past events), I’d head over to his ring and cheer him on and vice versa,” Whatule said. “I used to get pumped up by watching him fight and cheering him on.
“I hope their health stays good and they can compete again soon. When you don’t have a member of your team there, a lot of people get thrown off their games.”
The Violas hope to get back into competition in a couple months. Billy Viola is undergoing therapy three days a week at the Medical Wellness Center in Jeannette, but still teaches at the karate school to stay active. So does Addie Viola, who will need a skin graft to cover the scar on her forehead.
“My goal is to make it back to nationals next year and not move a step back from the previous year when I was the champion,” Billy Viola said. “I want to be right back where I was.”
The car crash did end Bill Viola Jr.’s competitive career, but it opened the door to his true passions.
Bill Viola Jr. began his non-profit work as a Senior at the University of Pittsburgh (1999). Viola founded Kumite International (KI), a scholarship foundation (the first of its kind in the United States) through a partnership with Western PA Police Athletic League and Eckert Seamans Law Firm. KI allocated $50,000 in scholarship funds for karate athletes and made national news when Lynn Swann (The Chairman of President George W. Bush’s Council of Physical Fitness and Sports) presented the scholarships with Viola Jr. at his 2004 Kumite Classic.
Viola poised to provide karate scholarships to youth
By Brian Hunger
July 22, 2001
The tone in his voice tells it all.
He wouldn’t tell you it himself, but when Bill Viola graduated from HempfieldArea High School in 1995, he just might have been the most accomplished athlete in his class. But because his specialty was karate, a sport offering little opportunity on the college scene, Viola, now 24, was left with no scholarship offers. He surely had the credentials. A nine-time Pennsylvania state champion who had won six national titles and a 1998 world title, Viola graduated in the top five percent of his senior class, which was one of the biggest in the state.
It seems hard to believe there was no money waiting for him, considering an athlete with similar accolades in, say football, could pick any school he wanted, from Notre Dame to perhaps the Ivy League. Not Viola. He would sit back and ponder whether to laugh or cry. Lots of his friends, most of whom were good athletes but not great ones, received numerous offers from colleges to wrestle and play football or baseball. “I graduated at top end of my class and had a No. 1 rating (in the nation), but couldn’t get any kind of scholarship,” Viola said. “It really bothered me a lot. Even mediocre kids were getting a lot of money. I went to the state and had references and everything but just couldn’t get a dime.” Forced to pay his own way, Viola enrolled at theUniversity of Pittsburgh and graduated Summa Cum Laude and in the top one percent of the political science program.
Still disgruntled years later, Viola recently developed a program called “Kumite International,” which is the first non-profit sport karate rating organization in the United States based upon competitive scholarships. Through two sponsors, Viola designed a ranking system called KicKiss, which is Pennsylvania’s first and only rating system supporting the academic and sport goals of karate students. Viola held his first tournament, the Kumite Classic, recently atHempfield Area High School. The event marked the first of several competitions over the coming year. The top 10 scorers each will be given a $1,000 scholarship. “It’s a unique program,” said Viola, who has won more than 2,000 medals and trophies. “There’s been no financial aid to help in schooling for so long, and there really has never been a board to bring all the other schools in the area together. This new system is like a league of sorts because it brings everybody together, and it’s really catching on in the martial arts community.” Viola said one of the things that bothered him the most regarding the lack of financial support for karate students is that most of them are forced to quit the sport and pursue other avenues in the hope of landing an athletic scholarship. “I’ve known so many people who could have possibly been Olympians, but quit because they needed to go to college,” he said. “There’s no support for them. This is a theme long over due, and we’re starting to draw some national attention. We’re just starting, but it had to begin somewhere.”
Prior to becoming a karate teacher and coach, Viola saw his own career of competing come to an end in a automobile accident. Seemingly invincible, Viola endured a life-changing day in 1999. While travelling on Route 30, his car was struck from behind and he suffered a fractured neck. The accident ultimately ended his competing days, and also left him unable to defend his 1998 national title. “The wreck sure put my life on a different avenue,” he said.
A few months after the accident, Viola moved in with his cousin in Hollywood and did some acting and modeling, including an appearance in a Britney Spears video. He has also coordinated several karate stunt shows on ESPN.
While Viola said he could see himself working in movies as an instructor someday, lately he has been solely a karate connoisseur. “It’s all I really know,” he said. “My dad’s been teaching it since the 1960s and I’ve been doing it since I could stand.”
Karate Instructor Passionate About Foundation
By Dustin Dopirak
June 13, 2002
Bill Viola Jr. had spent countless hours on the phone, on airplanes and in different cities trying to get his organization, Kumite International, going. He had put everything, even a budding career in Hollywood, on hold.
But he remembered why he was doing it the first time he saw the fruits of his labor.
Kumite International is a non-profit organization that sanctions events in sport karate, a sport which allows martial artists of every discipline to compete against one another with a unified point scale. Throughout the year, competitiors accumulate points for winning matches at tournaments. The organization ended its third year of existence with the Kumite Classic April 27 at Hempfield AreaHigh School.
This year’s event marked the first time Viola, 25, was able to award scholarships to those who had earned the most points in each division. It made his organization the first non-profit organization to award scholarships to sport karate athletes.
“It was just a tremendous feeling of gratification,” Viola said. “It was great to know that all of that work we put in allowed them to receive something they truly deserved. I know how much they put into this sport and how little they get for it. Karate athletes face a lot of obstacles that a lot of people don’t know about.”
Viola knows as well as anyone. He began his competitive martial arts career when he was 3 years old, learning karate at his father’s school, the AlleghenyShotokan Karate School in North Huntingdon Township. He won nine state titles, six national championships and one world title in 1998. He already owned four national titles by the time he graduated from Hempfield Area in 1995, but unlike conventional athletes, his successes were rewarded only with trophies.
“I was about as good as there was in the sport of karate, and there was no money there at all for college,” Viola said. “There was a lot for football and basketball and sports like that. Even guys that were mediocre could get a scholarship.”
He graduated from the University of Pittsburgh, and continued to practice karate while he was in school. However, his career ended when he suffered a broken neck in a car accident in 1999. While recovering, he decided to find another way to contribute to karate, and that was where Kumite International found its beginnings.
After leaving the hospital, Viola contacted James Cvetic, president of the Western Pennsylvania chapter of the Police Athletic League, whom Viola had known since his youth. Cvetic put Viola in touch with C. James Parks of the law firm of Eckert, Seamans, Cherin and Mellot, who made the foundation a legal entity.
Viola went on the road to promote the foundation and took it from there. In its second year, Kumite-sanctioned events dotted the East Coast. There are sanctioned tournaments throughout the United States and in Canada and Italy. Last season, there were approximately 18 sanctioned events throughout the entire season. Viola already has scheduled 15 through November.
“Kids his age usually don’t know what they want to do,” Viola’s father said. “But he’s always been very goal-oriented, and you see that in the way he works with this. It’s become like a job to him, and its difficult to have a job like this to do, and he’s done a great job with it.”
The foundation brings in money through selling memberships and through various other fund raisers.This year, it awarded $10,000 in scholarship money to the overall national point champions in novice and advanced divisions in three age groups: 11-and-younger, 12-18, and adult. There are also scholarships for junior black belts (17-and-younger), adult black belts and female black belts.
Next year, Viola said he plans to allocate an additional $10,000 in scholarship money for members who show leadership. High school seniors and college students who intend to teach martial arts also will be able to apply for scholarships.
The foundation has allowed Viola to help a few people that have followed his path, including Angelo Marcile, one of Viola’s best friends and toughest karate rivals.
Marcile, 30, is a blackbelt who has won more than 30 national and state titles in his continuing career. He didn’t have enough money to go to college when he graduated but remained dedicated to the idea while working as a free lance subcontractor and teaching karate at night.
He is enrolled at Point Park College, where he will begin classes after he finishes a course at Community College of Allegheny County to get his grades up. He expects the scholarship he won to pay for his books.
“He told me he was thinking about doing this, and I told him I would help him out anyway I could,” Marcile said of Viola. “He’s really put his heart and soul into this and I’m very thankful for what he’s done.”
Wertz, Majorie (November 4, 2000). “North Huntingdon Township man hopes to hit it big in Tinsel Town”. Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, p. 5. Standard Observer Section
You can take the man out of western Pennsylvania, but you can’t take westernPennsylvania out of the man. At least, that’s what Bill Viola, Jr. believes.
Born and raised in North Huntingdon Township, the 1995 Hempfield High Schoolgraduate attended the University of Pittsburgh and received a degree in political science. Within a year’s time, he took his good looks and talents to Hollywood. “A number of things happened to bring me out to California,” said Viola. “It’s always been a dream of mine to break into movies. And I’ve always been in front of a camera and in front of large audiences when competing in karate.”
Viola has been training and competing in a Japanese form of karate for nearly 20 years. Viola’s father, Bill Sr., owns the Allegheny Shotokan Karate School inNorth Huntingdon. Since 1981, Bill Jr. has won over 2,000 trophies, awards and titles. But a serious automobile accident last year could have ended his days in competitions. “The vehicle I was in got hit from behind on Route 30 in North Huntingdon last summer,” he said. “I suffered a fractured neck.”
The accident and his injury put a stop to his competing in the karate national championships in August. Viola was a six-time Pennsylvania state karate champion and couldn’t defend his national title win of 1998. “All I’ve ever done was compete in karate tournaments and championships,” said Viola. “Then in January, I had to have surgery on my esophagus at UPMC. I wasn’t allowed to train or compete. So I decided to try a different avenue.”
Viola began promoting karate and tournaments, but it wasn’t enough. “Summer was coming and I had to decide what do to. I have a cousin who is a model inCalifornia. He encouraged me to come out and try modeling.” After only two weeks in Hollywood, Viola was signed by the Pang Matusi Agency. “Pang Matusi is Japanese and because I’ve competed in Japanese style karate, there was a click between me and the agency right away,” he said.
Since moving to North Hollywood, Viola has found work as a model, actor and dancer, appearing in a wide variety of movies, commercials, promos and dance videos, including Britney Spears’ “Stronger” video. “I like to keep myself open to a lot of things – TV, movies, videos. A casting director was selecting the right look for the Britney Spears’ video and he saw my photograph on my web site,” said Viola. “The casting director said I had the perfect look for her video. “My three little sisters are the most popular girls in school now because of my association with Britney Spears,” he said with a laugh.
The 23-year-old son of Bill Viola, Sr. and Shelly Rossi of the Penglyn area of North Huntingdon said other opportunities have opened up since the Britney Spears’ video. “Since then, I’ve done other things, little things here and there. You never know what to expect. It’s like no other job out there and you have to be ready. You get to meet directors, actors, connections that will help you in the future. My political science background has helped me in this industry. Hollywood is all politics. So I have to give credit to my poly sci professors at Pitt.”
Although Viola’s future in Hollywood is bright, he still maintains his hometown roots in western Pennsylvania. “People comment on my western Pennsylvaniaaccent all the time,” Viola said. “The relatives I have out here are originally from western Pennsylvania, so we can relate. “I come back home as much as I can. All my friends and family are still there. I hope to be back for Christmas.”
Living life in Hollywood is definitely different, Viola said. “The traffic is unbelievable. To go a mile may take an hour or two. If anything stresses me out, it’s the traffic jams.” Despite the setbacks that have hampered his competing in karate tournaments and championships, Viola continues to be an active member of the Hollywood scene. “I’m very fortunate that I can still teach and coach karate to make extra money, but I’ve been really busy with modeling and acting.”