For Brenda Villa, the path to water polo glory began in the City of Commerce

Brenda Villa had an aquatic center in Commerce named after her following a gold medal win by the U.S. in the 2012 London Olympics, Villa's first gold and fourth medal overall.
Brenda Villa had an aquatic center in Commerce named after her following a gold medal win by the U.S. in the 2012 London Olympics, Villa’s first gold and fourth medal overall.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)
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If Brenda Villa hadn’t grown up in Commerce, she probably wouldn’t have become a four-time Olympic medalist who stands 5 feet 4 but is a towering figure in her sport.

It was Villa’s good fortune that Sandy Nitta, a member of the 1964 U.S. Olympic swim team, founded a water polo program in Commerce that allowed kids to play for little cost. Villa’s mother had already enrolled her in a swimming program, and when her brother decided to try water polo, 8-year-old Brenda tagged along.

“I think the club team I grew up playing for is unique. We have a lot of history when you think about it being a majority-Latina club,” says Villa, whose parents were born in Mexico.

She played on the boys’ team at Bell Gardens High (there was no girls’ team), and she was a first-team All-American in each of her four years. She was accepted to Stanford but delayed her entrance to train with Team USA for the debut of women’s Olympic water polo at the 2000 Sydney Games.

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In the early days of the U.S. national team program, the athletes had few luxuries compared to their male counterparts. “We’d travel with this big TV in a wooden crate and the youngest players on the team would carry it so we could look at games,” Villa says. "… there was some expectation that you would fundraise money to be on the team.”

Villa scored nine goals to lead the U.S. women at Sydney, where the team won a silver medal. She led Stanford to an NCAA title in 2002 and was voted the top female college water polo player in the U.S. She returned to the Olympic team in 2004 and was the scoring leader in a bronze-medal performance. After she graduated from Stanford she played professionally in Italy. “You could make some money and still continue to play,” she says.

Brenda Villa was called the "Wayne Gretzky of women's water polo" by one coach.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

“I would say we’re funded pretty equally now, but when you think of things like media coverage and media exposure, I still don’t think that we get what we should,” she adds.

The U.S. women’s Olympic team won silver at Beijing in 2008, and FINA Acquatics World Magazine named Villa its female water polo player of the decade for 2000-2010. Villa got her fourth medal and first gold when the U.S. defeated Spain at the 2012 London Games. (After her gold medal triumph, the aquatics center in Commerce became the Brenda Villa Aquatic Center).

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One of the few non-Californians on the U.S. women’s water polo team, she was a goalkeeper on the squad that won the 2015 world championship and the gold medal at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

The U.S. women won gold again in 2016 and the team had a 69-match winning streak, which came to an end in January.

Villa, 39, retired from the national team after the London Games and moved to the Bay Area, where she coaches at the high school level. She also started a nonprofit called Project 2020 that minimizes costs for kids to play.

“I played water polo basically for free growing up and that was something in my mind,” she says. “Aquatics is such a sport for people that have resources. I always thought about access and opportunity, and I was given that, so when I retired I wanted to make sure I could [give back]. ”

Villa also is a member of the board of USA Water Polo, the sport’s national governing body, and other key committees.

“As an athlete I always wanted to see what was going on behind closed doors,” she explains. “If I’m not the one trying to figure that out, I can’t keep complaining about it. … for me, my intersectionality of being a woman, being a Latina, being in a small sport, it’s ‘How can I contribute? How can I bring in another lens?’ ”

Brenda Villa photographed at the Brenda Villa Aquatic Center in Commerce.
(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)