It’s funny how a single occurrence in someone’s life can make such a difference.
Take the case of water polo great Brenda Villa, the most decorated athlete in the women’s sport who won four Olympic medals (one gold, two silvers, one bronze) in her storied career in the pool and was named female water polo player of the decade (2000-2009) by one publication.
Villa grew up in Commerce, California, an area in east Los Angeles that happened to have an aquatic program at the local pool. Villa noted the coach there wanted to give swimmers another option and introduced water polo.
“We were one of the first pools giving girls the opportunity to play,” said Villa, who ended her Olympic career with a gold medal in 2012. “We did swimming on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and water polo Tuesday and Thursday.”
Without that program at the local pool, things might have been a lot different for Villa, whose parents emigrated from Mexico in the 1970s.
“Most of the kids in our neighborhood were first-generation Mexican-Americans with both parents working sometimes two jobs,” recalled Villa, whose name now adorns Commerce’s aquatic center. “When I got older and went to college, there weren’t that many minorities playing the sport. And here was the city of Commerce eliminating barriers. We were lucky our city offered it and at an affordable cost.”
National Hispanic Heritage Month is from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15. Villa, now 37, said her Hispanic heritage helped shape her water-polo career.
“I grew up in a first-generation Mexican household,” she said. “It influenced everything about me. The first sporting team I cheered for was the Mexican national soccer team. There was so much passion that came with it. My parents were so invested in that team. That made me very passionate about all the sports I played.”
These days, Villa, now married and the proud mother of a 1-year-old daughter, remains heavily involved in the sport that gave her so much. She coaches water polo at Castilleja School, an all-girls school in Palo Alto, California, a city she’s very familiar with from her time at Stanford, where she helped lead the Cardinal to an NCAA title. She also coaches a 14U club team.
On a broader scale, Villa, along with Skylar Dorosin, is spearheading Project 2020, a nonprofit organization aiming to provide low-income youths of the San Francisco mid-peninsula with the opportunity to learn to swim and play water polo. Dorosin, who graduated from Stanford in 2016 and played on the women’s water polo team there in 2012-13, started Project 2020 in the fall of 2008 as a high school freshman after playing in a tournament in Commerce triggered her desire to bring the sport to lower socio-economic communities around her hometown of Palo Alto.
Villa jumped on board.
“The city of Commerce sponsored our youth sports, and I didn’t realize how much of a game-changer that was for me or for other kids coming out of the community,” Villa said. “How can I pay that forward or pay it back? I wanted to give back in some form.
“Skylar came to Commerce and saw the program there. She’s from Palo Alto, and there are pockets in the Bay Area that could use something similar. She started giving lessons and through my various connections we hooked up and brought our visions and goals together.”
Villa noted the long-term plan is to create a program that can be modeled in other communities who need similar help getting started. She added the benefits of an aquatics program are multifold.
“Some of these kids started with us when they were 4 and 5, and now they are in high school playing a sport they had no idea existed before,” she said. “Others are lifeguards. Aquatics is a full-circle benefit for a community. You have the different sports and you also have the water-safety aspect that can lead to potential jobs within a close radius of them, making it doable for the kids and their families.”
Looking back, Villa said she still owes plenty to a sport that changed her life.
“Water polo gave me confidence,” she said. “I played on co-ed teams, and by the age of 8 I realized I was just as good as the boys, which definitely gave me that confidence. I’ve always said I don’t think I would be a four-time Olympic medalist and Stanford graduate if I didn’t happen to grow up in that city, though I would have liked to believe I would have made it to college (she’s the first student from her high school to attend Stanford). Water polo was a tool and vehicle for me to dream big and get after it.”
And because of Villa’s continued efforts, other youth athletes are able to dream just as big.
Mike Miazga has written about Olympic sports for nearly 25 years and is the former editor in chief of Volleyball Magazine. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.