Feature by Julia Lam
CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts, November 14. EIGHT tallies at USA Water Polo's Speedo Top 40 tournament reminded the world that three-time Olympian Brenda Villa isn't going anywhere.
From Beijing to Los Alamitos, Athens to Sydney, Melbourne to Cosenza, Villa has made her name – and her shooting arm – known in the water polo world. Among the national team captain's many distinctions include three Olympic medals, a world championship title, a World League title and an NCAA title. A native of Commerce, Calif., Villa graduated from Stanford in 2003, and plays professionally with the Orizzonte Club in Italy when not training with the national team. Villa recently took time out of her busy schedule to speak with us.
Speedo Top 40 and post-Beijing
How was Speedo Top 40, especially coming off of Beijing?
It was tougher than previous years, just because I wasn't in any sort of full-time training – it was going from taking a break to playing from two games a day. But it was lots of fun.
What was it like playing with younger girls?
In the water, a lot of times they would keep apologizing. But I would just say, don't apologize, this is what happened, it's okay. I tend to talk a lot in the water. It's basically trying to give them as much information so they know our system of play.
It was really exciting. You have younger players in the pipeline, and [playing together] give us older players a connection to the younger girls. I know that I'm on my way out, and it's kind of fun to think about them going on and some of them playing at really high levels. I'll be able to say, I played with her, she was a good player when she was in high school.
Aside from Speedo Top 40, what have you been up to since Beijing?
Right now I'm in California. I'm an assistant coach at Cerritos College. In January, I will be going over to Italy to play with an Italian club team, [Orizzonte "Geymonat" Catania].
How do you like coaching?
I like it. I don't think it's something to do long-term but it's been good. Sometimes, having played for so long, I have a hard time explaining things to the girls. I expect the girls to understand and perform a task at the first try. I'm used to functioning at the elite level and forget that I have to explain basics.
And why head to Italy to play water polo?
After college there is no opportunity to play competitive water polo in the U.S. and train to stay competitive on the national team. The club team contacted me before 2004 Olympics. I'd been to Italy a bunch of times, taken a quarter of Italian, and I speak Spanish so I figured I could get over the language barrier. They have probably one of the higher qualities of play, one of the most competitive.
Next up, we have the Champions Cup. The top 2 Italian teams will be in tournament with the top 2 of the Greek league, the Spanish league, the Russian league. It's kind of a battle league for European club teams.
The Beijing Olympics
What are your thoughts on Beijing, a couple months out from the experience?
The Chinese did such a good job putting it on and making sure everything had a plan. It was amazing to open up against the Chinese and see the stadium filled and hearing cheers, see the support they got, because water polo isn't even a big sport there. It's not everyday that you get the opportunity to play in a stadium that seats 6,000-plus and have it be so loud.
The USA water polo team was amazing, too. We had 150 friends and family there. It was awesome to look up and see the American flag.
Sometimes we would get booed, or there's just violence when we play, so it was great to have that many people there supporting us.
Beyond competing and training, how was the rest of the Olympic experience?
Well, we competed through most of the duration of the Games. The only other event we saw was men's water polo. But every room in the Village has its own television with closed feed channels from every venue, so we watched swimming, volleyball, really any time we were in our room the TV was on and if Americans were playing we were watching.
We all saw the relay with Jason Lezak. We were yelling, ridiculously loud, and just hoped no one was resting or sleeping. We were going crazy.
Did you meet any other exciting athletes?
Oh yes. I'm a huge Lakers fan, and we met Kobe. He speaks Italian, and at the opening ceremony, I had a conversation with him in Italian. If I could be a paparazzi for a day, I'm going to find Kobe.
He was really nice. Not that I'm surprised, because he took pictures and was talking to everyone. It was really good to see him embrace the whole Olympics thing – not all of them do. In 2004, Tim Duncan was the same way. He was probably asked for 300 pictures, even by athletes. It's cool to see that he embraced it and watching them at their medal ceremony and their excitement was awesome. It was like – we're all at one level, we're all Olympians.
That was a great experience.
In the beginning…
So Commerce as a water polo hotbed…
There's 13,000 residents, and lots of business. There's a casino.
Who knew that it would end up being a water polo hotbed? But the city does a great job in sponsoring the program. You can do a lot when the worry of buying equipment, paying for pool time, is not such a concern. It's really a natural thing – there's such a great facility, and why wouldn't you want your kids to swim? And there's word of mouth. When you're in swim lessons, you hear about water polo. Now there are girls that go on and pursue scholarships. It's just blown up.
Do you make it back home often these days?
Not so much with full-time training. But when I am at home, which happens to be across from the pool, I drop by to chat with the kids. On weekends you can hear the [refs'] whistles. My dad's a big water polo groupie, so he always knows what's going on.
What's it like playing elite water polo at 5'4"?
Well, I don't really know it any other way. Sure, some people will have longer arms. But I don't know… it works out. I think it's an advantage, if you ask me.
Rate how competitive you are, on a scale of 1-10.
Oh gosh, like a 12. Just ask my teammates. Ask anyone.
Tell me about being on the way out, as you put it.
You feel like the U.S. is so driven by gold medals and first places, and it's hard to get so close and not have that, and think there's no other way to play.
Being a part of three Olympic teams, I remember how special each experience was. To put it in perspective, we've done something pretty special. No other country has medaled in three Olympics. I think about the process, friendships, crazy workouts over the years as opposed to end results. I can walk away and not feel any regrets.
I still haven't decided if going to retire. I'm not a twenty-year-old on her first Olympic team with no worries, not having to think about life and the real world and other factors coming into play.
What other life factors would influence your decision to continue playing?
I think about how many years I've put into water polo, how eventually I will probably want to be married, have a family. I just want to try and find a niche where I can be as passionate about it as I have been about water polo all these years.
Water polo has been my job for how many years. I enjoy it, I'm passionate about it, I have a lot of drive. I hope I can match that in the real world.
Any idea where you'd like to begin looking for your next job?
Yes and no. Ideally in the next couple years I'd be in some sort of master's program. My degree is in political science. I think I'd look at a master's in public policy. I think I'd be into local politics, not be a politician but be more behind the scenes, giving advice.
I have to have some work experience if all I've done is played water polo! I would love to just try and pick three jobs, try different types of fields, be at those jobs for, say, four months each and then be in school and really clamp down and focus on what I want to do
I'd love to work with young girls in lower income areas, help them get involved with works. Sports helped me and taught me a lot of lessons. Even if you don't end up becoming an Olympian, being a part of sports teaches you a lot.
I have so many ideas, I just need to start writing them down and talking to people. But for sure – school. I need to go back to school.
Do you have any advice for young water polo players?
When I talk to little kids, I tell them to make sure you do both [swimming and water polo]. Swimming is an integral part of water polo at an early age.
And one of the most important things for me was my age group swim coach. She just had such a huge impact in my life. I just hope most girls can have a mentor who has such a positive impact on their lives.