In the Olympic era of women’s water polo, one of the most well-known names in the sport is Brenda Villa. The longtime captain of the USA Water Polo Women’s National Team, Villa took part in four Olympic Games winning a medal every time. Just five feet, four inches tall, the diminutive Villa defied expectation becoming a dominant force on both ends of the pool. She capped her storied career with a gold medal at the 2012 Olympic Games in London. A three-time FINA World Champion, Villa bridged the gap from the pioneers of the Team USA women to the modern-day group that continues on a dynastic run.
A native of Commerce, California, Villa first played high school water polo with boys before girls programs were available. From there, she headed to Stanford University where she won the 2002 NCAA title and was named the Cutino Award recipient as the best player in the college game. Named FINA Player of the Decade in 2010, Villa was also named Pac-12 Player of the Century in 2016. She has stayed close to the sport as a club and high school coach while taking on governance roles within the Women’s Sports Foundation and Pan American Aquatics in addition to a spot on the USA Water Polo Board of Directors. She is a co-founder of the Brenda Villa Foundation, an organization focusing on increasing water safety and expanding diversity in aquatic sports.
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“I would say that that’s the moment when the dream of becoming an Olympic champion for me happened. It was like the Olympics is this great thing. You want to be there. We wanted to do well, but it wasn’t like I was thinking we were going to win at all. It was like, oh, let’s be there. We can compete. We can compete with everyone. But after that loss and being on the podium, that’s when, for me, that scene of, no, no, I want to be on the top of that podium.”
“And I made that team at a relatively young age, and then I was 15 when I made the Junior national team, which is a 20 and under team. So then I went to the first Junior World Championships.”
“I think the most incredible thing I would say is opening ceremonies, you’re walking in with 500 other US athletes, and there’s just this energy in the room. Everyone still has the hope of winning. Everyone’s there; they put in their time to win. So there’s this unimaginable energy as you’re walking in together into the stadium, and not just from the energy of your country, but all of the athletes.”
I’m a four-time Olympic medalist in the sport of water polo. I was an Olympic champion in 2012 at the London Olympics and captain of Team USA for two years. Now I coach, mentor, and have a foundation that is all about spreading awareness of water safety in underserved communities. Because of the start, I got into aquatics.
It was in the City of Commerce, and it was because I had access and opportunities. So I know that that was a significant influence in the trajectory of my life, and I want to make sure other kids that look like me also have that same access and opportunity.
The city was ahead of its time, right? It’s one of the only cities I’ve heard of that provides free access to sports. So if you signed up for their swim lessons at a very low cost, you were invited to join the swim and water polo teams at no cost.
They really eliminated the barriers that keep kids from underresourced areas, like brown and black kids, away from sports, especially sports like aquatics.
Aquatics are more expensive than land sports because of the added element of lifeguards and liability and access.
Yes. They have an indoor facility, which is unheard of in Southern California, and they built a new one in 2000. But they had a state-of-the-art one built in 1960. About that time is when the City Council of Commerce said they would invest in their youth.
The city was struggling a little bit, so they had to change what they offered and at what cost to the residents for the benefit of the city. Now there’s a one-time fee of $100 a year to be a part of this team, which is still cheap compared to what some of these other private teams cost.
The city really is. It has four parks, and they do a lot of great programming. It’s a small city with only 13,000 residents. But there is a big commercial aspect that helps them do a lot. The Commerce Casino, and the Citadel outlet, give back to the city. So there’s all this programming in the city that is free or low cost to its residents. It really helps build this community engagement aspect.
My parents were Mexican immigrants and had no idea what water polo was until I started playing.
But the thing that got us started was swim lessons. My mom was not comfortable in the water. So for her, it was like, we live across the street from this great facility, and I want my kids to learn to swim. And because it was easy for her to get us there and because it didn’t cost very much, she was able to do that.
My older brother and I learned to swim, and from there, we saw that there was a swim team and a water polo team. So we joined the swim team, and from the swim team, my brother joined the water polo team. And then, I joined two years later after my mom finally relented on my joining.
But it was easy to be a part of it because it was a community. It seemed at that time that everyone in the city did it. So it was this big family affair. By 8th grade, my coaches knew that I was pretty good because I had made this youth team. And that’s when it started getting complicated because I needed to be at the youth national team tryouts or at all these other things, and my parents would have to drive me there.
One thing that I loved was the team aspect of water polo. It’s a team sport, and you’re there with all your friends. For me, it was fun, it was competitive, and I’m a very competitive person. You have to be strong to play water polo because someone’s on you, pushing you, and you have to catch a ball. You have all these things that you have to be aware of. For me, that challenging aspect of the sport was what drew me to it.
Our team was already successful, so it wasn’t a surprise. But then there were these tryouts that you could do. So then you go to this tryout because you want to make a section team. And I made that team at a relatively young age, and then I was 15 when I made the Junior national team, which is a 20 and under team. So then I went to the first Junior World Championships.
Yes, he was playing, but the size makes a bigger delineation on the men’s side than the women’s. We played in high school. We won CIF championships at Bell Gardens High School together. But there’s a bigger size needed, and he’s 5’10 or 5’11, and the average probably size on the men’s national team is 6’2 or 6’3.
I did. Because I grew up playing with all of the boys on my team, I was an athlete to them. To them, it wasn’t a big deal.
Yes, and at this point, women’s water polo started taking off. It was now a varsity sport in most colleges, and I knew that that would be a way for me to go to school and get it paid for.
I was still playing on these teams and then made the National Team the following summer. I traveled with the National Team, and then I was busy with school because I dreamed of going to Stanford. So my academics were always top of mind. Then women’s water polo was put into the Olympic program. All these opportunities to pursue a sport in college, play D1, and become an Olympian by dedicating more time to the sport.
So London was my last one, and I was 32. The Sydney Olympics was my first one, and I was 20.
I don’t think I knew. I would watch Janet Evans and Summer Sanders compete. I was a swimmer, loved those athletes, and wanted to be them. I think it became more of a reality when it was put into the Olympic program while I was in high school because that’s when I was starting to play with the national team. So it’s like, why not?
Someone told me that I might have been one of the first from my high school to go. So there was a lot around that.
My college career was interesting because I was training with the national team to make the first Olympic team. So I went to Stanford for a quarter and then took two quarters off, went back for a quarter, took two quarters off because I was pursuing this other dream of mine. So it was an interesting time.
One of my first thoughts was, do I belong here? And luckily for me, I did play on a team. I had a built-in support system, so it worked its way out.
It’s hard to describe. There is usually a build-up for water polo, but women’s water polo was added late.
It’s everything you could imagine, then multiply that by ten. I think the most incredible thing I would say is opening ceremonies, just you’re walking in with 500 other US athletes, and there’s just this energy in the room. Everyone still has the hope of winning. Everyone’s there; they put in their time to win. So there’s this unimaginable energy as you’re walking in together into the stadium, and not just from the energy of your country, but all of the athletes.
So that’s something that I wish you could bottle up and share with other people, but you have to be there to know that feeling, and that’s great.
And we ended up in the final against Australia in Sydney, in a 17,000-capacity stadium, and there were 16,500 Australians and maybe 500 other people, not all Americans, so it was a great atmosphere to be in. You couldn’t draw it up any better. I mean, especially for Australia. They won with 1 second to go. They beat us. So for them, it was a fairy tale ending, right?
And for us, that’s the moment when the dream of becoming an Olympic champion happened.
How Did You Guys Do In The Athens Olympics?
In Athens, we got bronze. After Sydney, we were up until that time, and we started doing really well. Before Sydney, we were in 7th place in the world. No one thought we would be in that final game.
We get there, we’re like, okay, now the world is seeing what we know we’re capable of. And after Sydney, then we were favored, we won in 2003, we won the world championship. It was the first time ever the US. had won it. So going into the games in Athens, we were favored. So then we meet up against the Italians, who we beat in the final of the world championship the year before, and we lose by one at the end of the game, right?
So here you are, and you’re favored to win. Now our goal is to win. So now your goal is shattered. You can’t win it all anymore. So then, how do you downshift quickly? How do you recuperate? So for us to jump back in and then I don’t believe we played that well in the bronze medal game, but it doesn’t matter in the end. It’s like, who is just going to win? Who’s going to find the will to win after you’re devastated from losing that semi-final?
Yes. We won the silver medal in Beijing, and there were quite a few retirements after Athens. Some players were older than I at that point that did too, and we’re like, no, we’re done. We were a young team going into Beijing, and again, we were favored to win, and we didn’t win.
But I remember two things from Beijing, and it was out of this world Opening Ceremonies. Just everything that China put on for those games was mind-blowing. We got to the championship game, and we go down 40, and at that point, you’re like, oh, my goodness, what’s happening? But then we tied it at 55 going into halftime. We thought we had bounced back and hand things moving in the right direction, only to lose by one.
Everyone’s devastated, and no one’s talking in the locker room. You walk around to the podium, and no one really is smiling on the podium. And I look back to that moment, and I was captain of that team. And it makes me so incredibly sad that we are the second-best team in the world on a podium.
We’ve done something great, but we can’t enjoy it in that moment because we are so focused on the outcome and forget how we got there. That is why I decided to stick around for four more years because I don’t have the gold that I’m so competitive about. But it’s also because I didn’t want to remember my last memory of playing this sport be our awful reaction.
Looking back now, I’m like, oh, my goodness, we bounced back and almost won that game, and no one remembers our resilience.
Another special thing is that there was another Commerce girl on that team. You have this small city that I grew up in, and you have two of their athletes that make this Olympic team in a sport where it is big in our city, but you don’t hear about it in the San Gabriel Valley.
So when you put it in that context, it’s like, there’s so much to be proud of, but it all got overshadowed because we won or we won the silver.
I’m a three-time Olympian. I’m done with college. I’m 28 at this point. I still wanted to keep going because:
So I said that I would go for it again. And as I was deciding this, we got a new coach. So I had the same Olympic coach for three Olympics going into my fourth, there’s a new coach. So change and transitions are hard, and it was not the best first two years of a quad.
There were times when my mom, who’s ultimate supporter, ultimate critic, just a person that’ll give it to you straight, which I appreciate her for. She was like, Why are you still playing? You’re not happy anymore. You cry all the time. Why are you doing this? What do you need to prove to anybody? And she was right. And so at some point in the next quad, there was a decision I had to make, like, are you going to go for it and block out the noise and go back to the fun and the joy?
And I did, and then I recommitted, and I focused on different things. And then it worked out.
I was captain of the 2012 team. We went to London, and watching the film, we didn’t do all that great, but we won. We got the fairy tale ending; we’re there, we win. And one thing that helped us in that journey was talking about things that didn’t go well in Beijing.
There were things we learned in that loss in Beijing that helped us win in London.
I have a foundation, the Brenda Villa Foundation, which is essentially modeled after the City of Commerce. Our foundation raises money and gives out small grants to other programs from underserved communities already doing the work in aquatics. We want to help you continue to thrive in whatever space you are, get you into aquatics, or do things.
I am an advocate for water safety, and I’m on many different committees because I know that only a few people look like me in decision-making positions, especially in water polo.
The best way to get in touch is through my Instagram @brenda4villa. If you reach out, I’ll be the one responding to you.