For the eight years that women's water polo has been an Olympic event, Brenda Villa has splashed and scored for the U.S. team. She led the team to a silver medal in Sydney, and a bronze in Athens. In Beijing, Villa now the team captain, is looking for the missing medal. KPCC's Brian Watt has this profile of the water polo powerhouse from the City of Commerce.
Coach: Ready? Go!
Brian Watt: In this practice session at the Joint Forces Training Base in Los Alamitos, the U.S. Women's Water Polo team is doing countless "sprints" across the pool. It doesn't look easy, but it offers a calm break from the violence of water polo's "attackers" and "snipers."
Most of the women in this pool are muscled and tall... six feet tall or taller. But not Brenda Villa. She's a shrimp in these waters... 5'4". But she's also the team's top scorer. She scored the most goals at Stanford, too. And she was a four-time All-American when she was on the Bell Gardens High School water polo team... the boys team.
Brenda Villa: Honestly, I think, that's made me the player that I am. I think that in high school, I had to be smarter and anticipate, because the boys were faster and stronger than me. So I think that has helped me.
Watt: A girl on a boys team... a girl who's the star of the boys team. Brenda Villa was easy to spot then – and she's easy to spot now in the practice pool. She and teammate Patty Cardenas are the only brown-skinned players on the U.S. Women's water polo squad. The Latinas. They're both products of the aquatics program in the city of Commerce. Guy Baker has coached the women's national team for 10 years.
Coach Guy Baker: It has been part of the women's water polo fabric from the beginning when it started, but now it's getting recognized. So hopefully that encourages more people to play. Baker (to swimmers): One pulse rate. See where you're at. [player gasps]
Watt: Brenda Villa's parents came to the U.S. from Mexico, and they got jobs in the garment industry, sizing and sewing, no kidding, swimsuits. Since Commerce isn't too far from the ocean, and since the Villas lived right across from a city pool in Commerce, Brenda says her mom wanted her kids to be comfortable in water.
Villa: We started swim lessons, my older brother and I, probably at 2 years old, where they kinda just put you in the water, you float, you blow bubbles. And the city of Commerce offers swim lessons throughout the summer, you know, fairly cheap, or, I think, free for residents.
Watt: Commerce has done a lot more to keep an entire generation of residents water-logged. Parks and Rec bankrolls a swim and water polo program with seven coaches. Seven years ago, the city replaced the pool across from the Villass house with a $20 million aquatorium.
Brenda started playing water polo when she was eight. She says her family paid for her swimsuits and goggles, but Commerce Aquatics paid for everything else, including travel to national tournaments. So as Villa made splashes at water polo, her parents didn't drown in red ink.
Villa: I mean, my whole life, they both worked full-time jobs, so it wasn't like there was extra money lying around for us to play whatever sports we wanted, or to travel anywhere we wanted to travel. So it was kind of just a weight lifted off our shoulders where you could just... play. You're having fun. You're good at a sport. You just kind of run with it.
Watt: Villa ran with it all the way to Stanford on an athletic scholarship. She took time off to compete in the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. By the next Olympics in Athens, she'd finished a bachelor's degree in political science – the first person in her family to earn a college degree.
Villa: My mom has always placed a high emphasis on school, and I think to her, graduating from Stanford is a bigger deal than my two Olympic medals. To her, she's like, if you're gonna succeed in this country, you need to have an education.
Watt: Villa says she wants to return to school for a master's degree. She has an interest in local politics, but isn't sure yet that she wants to be a politician. Her ideal job, she says, would involve getting more girls to play sports. She knows that if those girls are gonna choose water polo, her team needs to win one more medal – a gold one.