12 in '12: London hopeful Brenda Villa

By Brandon Penny | Aug. 04, 2010, 12:47 p.m. (ET)
The 12 in ’12 series celebrates the fact that the London 2012 Olympic Games are just two years away.  The series previews 12 athletes who have proven themselves as true competitors in past Games and look to win medals for Team USA in London. The sixth part of the series features silver and bronze medalist water polo player from Sydney, Athens and Beijing, Brenda Villa.
Two Olympic silver medals. One Olympic bronze medal. FINA player of the decade.

Water polo superstar Brenda Villa has played in every Olympic Games since women’s water polo was added to the Olympic Program in 2000. She helped the U.S. team win three Olympic medals and countless other international titles. The one thing missing from her resume is that elusive Olympic gold medal. In what she said will be her last Games, Villa hopes to help Team USA bring home the gold in London.

One of the Guys
Before Brenda Villa was born, her parents, Rosario and Ines, moved from their hometown of Tecalitlan, Mexico, to Commerce, Calif., in search of a better life.

When Villa was 6, she began swimming competitively and two years later, she followed in the footsteps of her brother, Edgar, and started playing water polo.

“I did swimming and water polo simultaneously, and I just had more fun playing a team sport,” Villa said. “I think water polo really called to me because when I was 10-and-under, I was just as good as the boys, if not better. I was just as big, probably bigger than most of them. So it was fun to really be an equal in the water for them.”

Villa went to Bell Gardens High School and wanted to continue competing there, but the school did not have a girls’ water polo team. But that was not a problem for headstrong Villa, who played on the boys’ team instead.

“I grew up playing with boys,” Villa said. “I went into high school and most of my teammates were my teammates from forever, so it was easy to play with them. It wasn’t always comfortable to play against other boys, who didn’t play with girls. There were a lot of egos on their part, and pushes and shoves.”

The ignorance and superiority complexes Villa experienced from her competitors turned out to be beneficial.
“It made me a better player,” Villa said. “Because at that point they had gone through puberty and were so much stronger than I was, and I needed to be smarter.’’

Can We Play Too?
Water polo was first played in 1900 at the Games of the II Olympiad in Paris and for the next century water polo would remain in the Games, but only for men.

When Sydney was awarded the 2000 Olympic Games, the women’s water polo teams from Australia, Canada, Netherlands and United States fought hard to get women’s water polo added to the program. It has been reported that Australia’s teammates even greeted members of the International Olympic Committee in nothing but their swimsuits at the airport during a pre-Olympic visit.

Women’s water polo was eventually added for the 2000 Olympic Games. Villa remembers that moment vividly and how greatly Olympic status helped her sport.

“After that there were more college programs and more scholarships,” Villa said. “That was the time that I was entering college, so before then I don’t think I realized what a big deal it was.  Once it did happen I was like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe that it happened a hundred years after the men,’ and then I really saw everything that it took to get women’s water polo into the Olympic Program.”

Villa, who turned 20 in 2000, was determined to make it to Sydney and become one of the first 13 American women to compete in water polo at the Olympic Games.

“No spots are ever secure,” Villa said. “But just the opportunity to compete to be a part of history was something that was really cool.”

Guy Baker was head coach of the Senior National Team from 1998-2008 and has been Director of Olympic Development since then, and has worked closely with Villa now for more than a decade.

Baker said the two did not get off to a great start. Villa did not care for training and if she had it her way, would have played scrimmage games all the time. Eventually, Baker was able to recognize Villa’s abilities as a player and with his help she developed and matured into a better player.

The U.S. team was a true underdog in Sydney and was not even expected to qualify for the Games, let alone have a shot at a medal. Baker said those Games turned into a magical ride for the team.

“We were the last team to qualify for Olympic Games,” Baker said. “We had to fight hard to qualify and we improved a lot in the year to be in a position to win a gold medal. That was pretty amazing.”

The gold-medal game was between Team USA and the golden favorite, host country Australia.  “That was unbelievable just because no one expected us to even medal,” Villa said. “And here we are in the final game against Australia in probably the biggest game in history. I don’t think there’s ever been a women’s game that’s had that many spectators, before then and after that. It was a crazy game, but very fitting for it being the first one ever, for women.”

The final score of the game was 4-3. Australia’s Yvette Higgins had scored the final goal with only 1.2 seconds remaining.

Two More Attempts at Gold
Villa used that experience she gained in Sydney and built on it for the next two Olympic Games. 
“She’s a great passer and she’s always shot well, but she has a great vision and a great feel for the game,” Baker said. “With her it’s all about game awareness and her intelligence. That part separates her.”

Villa was an essential part of the team that won gold at the 2003 FINA World Water Polo Championship, an event that is held every two years. This win made Team USA the gold-medal favorites at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games.

After winning two of its three preliminary games in Athens, the U.S. suffered a devastating loss to Italy in the semifinals. The team had lost any hope of grabbing gold and would go on to the bronze-medal game, where it succeeded in defeating Australia, 6-5.

“That was a special medal for us,” Baker said. “We had to regroup and come back to beat Australia, so that group I look at real proudly because it was tough coming back but we had to dig deep and we did a good job to make sure we left that Olympic Games with a medal.”

Following the Olympic Games in Athens, Villa and her teammates earned a silver medal at the 2005 FINA World Water Polo Championship. In 2006, they had their most disappointing season to date when they finished in fourth place at the FINA Water Polo World Cup, which takes place every four years.

The group rallied back the following year and resumed its place as gold medalists at the 2007 FINA World Water Polo Championship.

Of course this meant Team USA once again was the gold-medal favorite for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, and after its bronze and silver, the team was thirsty for gold. Villa was selected as team captain for those Games and a decade after initially meeting her Baker had full confidence that she was ready to fulfill that role.

“You can be on the national team and have good leadership and experience,’’ Baker said, “but to be a captain I think you’ve got to have a sense of what your teammates are doing and you’ve gotta have a sense of what the coaches want and how they want it. I don’t think at that stage that Brenda was able to do that (in Sydney).
“But she grew and developed. She’s the veteran of the team and she has the most experience. She’s definitely a leader now and she’s really, really good in that leadership role.”

Once again, Team USA won two of its three preliminary games, tying with Italy in the other. Villa and her teammates were up against Australia for their semifinal game. And just like the women did in Athens, they came out on top with a 9-8 victory over the Aussies, and moved on to the gold-medal game against the Netherlands.

Baker said the Beijing Games will be the most memorable for USA Water Polo, but not for the reason he would like.

“Beijing’s probably the toughest of all of them,” Baker said. “It was a great Olympic Games and the team did well, but we got upset by Netherlands in the final. So that’ll be the Olympic Games that’s gonna stick with us more as far as not quite accomplishing what we wanted.’’

Regardless of another failed attempt at Olympic gold, Villa’s immigrant parents could not have been more proud of her accomplishments at that point and the way their daughter had represented Team USA.

“I don’t think they ever expected their daughter to be a three-time Olympian,” Villa said. “But they’ve gone with it. They had no clue what the sport was, they just wanted their kids to learn to swim. They’re probably the biggest water polo fans now. It’s awesome to see my mom waving the American flag at an Olympics, or being so gung-ho and patriotic.’’

Retirement? Not Quite Yet
Entering the London Olympic Games, expectations once again are high for Team USA. “The great thing about the women’s program is there could be some disappointment about winning a medal,” Baker laughed.

“It’s a high standard and it’s a high bar, but I feel proud that we’ve created that.”

Although much of the international water polo world thought (and hoped) Villa would retire after Athens, she proved everyone wrong then by captaining the Beijing team four years later. And once again, after the 2008 Games, Villa decided she was not ready to retire yet.

She continued as captain in the 2009 season, fueled by the burning desire to finally win an Olympic gold. It was a desire that helped the team to succeed last year, as she and Heather Petri became the only two women in the world to be three-time World Champions, when Team USA won the 2009 FINA World Water Polo Championship.

This season, the U.S. proved it had no thoughts of backing down when the women won the 2010 FINA World League Super Final by defeating Australia, 12-11. This was the fifth win in seven years at this tournament for the team, and Villa as well.

World League Super Final was especially exciting for Villa, who was chosen as Most Valuable Player by the opposing coaches. Just a few months before that tournament, she received what some would consider the highest honor in her sport when FINA Aquatics World Magazine named her the female water polo player of the decade. At 30, Villa still manages to be at the top of her game.

“Everybody’s been trying to get Brenda retired since Athens and she’s kept playing after Athens,” Baker said. “She did a great job in Beijing and she’s still playing at a great level and like I said, her biggest strengths are her intelligence and what she does. And the smart players are usually the ones who play for a long time and keep going. There’s no one out there that knows the game better than Brenda, so it’ll be interesting to see how much longer she keeps going.”

But ask Villa and she knows exactly when she plans to retire: after the London 2012 Olympic Games.

“Definitely!’’ she said. “After two more years, I feel like I need to do other stuff, give back, be married, have kids.”

Villa has already started giving back to the water polo community. Last month she accepted a job as head coach of the water polo team at Castilleja, a school for girls ages 6-12 in Palo Alto, Calif.

Just what was Baker’s reaction to seeing his student become a master?

“Welcome to the dark side,’’ Baker said. “I would actually pay money to get in the pool and have her coach me. I have a few things I’d like to pay her back for. There’s no way that I thought back in Sydney that Brenda would be anywhere close to being a coach on a pool deck. It’s gonna be fun to watch.”

Villa will continue to play with the Women’s National Team while she coaches and has her eyes set on redemption at its next big tournament: 2010 FINA Women’s Water Polo World Cup, Aug. 17-22, in Christchurch, New Zealand.

“That’s my focus,” Villa said. “The last time we played in the World Cup [2006], we got fourth. And that was a big wakeup call for us. We knew that that would be unacceptable for us and not up to our standards, not to win a medal. The next year, we came back and won a World title in Australia. For me, it’s just one step at a time, one summer at a time. And yes, London is in my head, but I’m not letting it dominate my thoughts for now.”
As far as London is concerned, Villa said winning a gold medal is “the ultimate,” but if Team USA misses out on the gold once again it would not take away from the team’s accomplishments.

“They always make it all about the gold medal,” Villa said. “But we just need to get away from that and focus on playing water polo. In Beijing, that’s how it was and we accepted it. We were going in as the number one team, but sometimes you’ve got to pretend you’re the underdogs.”

In spite of which color hardware the team comes home with next time, Villa hopes the nation supports her and her teammates and enjoys watching how much fun they have together.

“They will see a great group of women leaving their hearts in the pool, playing the sport that they love,’’ Villa said.

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