FOUR-TIME OLYMPIC MEDALIST (SILVER IN 2000, BRONZE IN 2004, SILVER IN 2008, GOLD IN 2012).  •  SEVEN-TIME FINA WORLD LEAGUE CHAMPION  •  THREE-TIME FINA WORLD CHAMPION  •  THREE-TIME PAN AMERICAN GAMES CHAMPION  •  2002 NCAA WATER POLO CHAMPION  •  2002 PETER J, CUTINO AWARD WINNER AS TOP U.S. WATER POLO PLAYER  •  2001 NCAA WOMEN’S WATER POLO PLAYER OF THE YEAR
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Brenda Villa

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Personal Quotes
I guess you lead by example, but it blows my mid that people want to be like me. I never thought I would be a role model on this level.
Personal Info

Born On:  April 18, 1980
Hometown:  Commerce, California
Resides:  Mountain View, California
Education:  Stanford University '03 Political Science
Height:  5'4

Biography

When the United States’ women’s water polo team won the gold medal at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, it was a sweet moment for all 13 members of the team. It was, afterall, the first time the American women had ever won gold, and the first time that either American team had won gold since 1904, where the American men were the only teams in the Olympic field.

 

But for few, perhaps, was it as sweet as it was for American captain Brenda Villa - one of only two players who had been on all four American women’s Olympic water polo teams since the women’s version of the sport was added in 2000.

 

Villa’s path to water polo history launched as a freshman at Bell Gardens High School. Bell Gardens didn’t have a girls’ team, and so she wound up on the boys’ varsity team. As a part of that varsity team in the mid 90’s, Villa won two California South Section Championships, and became the first girl to ever be selected to the first-team all-CIF boys’ squad. In other words, she was deemed one of the top high school water polo players in California’s boys league, even though she’s a girl.

 

“The boys were faster and stronger,” Villa said of her unique experience. “I had to find a way to be smarter. I was able to develop a sense for the game that had me thinking a couple of moves ahead. I always needed to know what I was going to do in situations before they happen. Some of my coaches compare it to the game of chess. Always knowing 2-3 moves ahead of your opponents.”

 

The invaluable lessons she would learn playing against the boys would serve her well on the international stage. At just 5’4” tall, Villa was one of the shortest women’s water polo players in every international tournament she entered. The average woman on the American women’s water polo team is about 6 feet tall - towering over Villa.

 

But Villa has always found ways to make her height an asset rather than a hindrance.

 

“I believe the game is easier for taller players but I honestly believe that playing a team sport in water equalizes height enough for someone that is 5'4 to compete at the highest level,” Villa said. “I have heard some coaches say ‘you can't teach height’ which makes me a little upset. But it has always been a driving force for me to prove that height doesn't matter if you work hard and study the game.  I do believe that my height sometimes helps me.”

 

Villa says that she can release her shot quicker than some of her taller teammates, and that change-of-pace can catch goalies off guard, which has helped make her one of the highest scorers in American women’s water polo history.

 

“My tall teammates have a harder time sleeping on planes when we travel overseas,” Villa joked. “I’m ready to go after lots of sleep.”

 

Her quick release and her cunning in the pool have served her well in her career. In three years on the Stanford team, she scored 172 goals, and in both 2001 and 2002 was awarded the top women’s collegiate water polo player in the country.

 

Internationally, she was frequently the Americans’ top scorer throughout the major tournaments, including at the 2000 and 2004 Olympics, where they won bronze and silver medals, respectively.

 

When she hung up her competition suit following the 2012 Olympics, Villa didn’t go far from the pool. She is the head coach at the Castileja School in Palo Alto, California, and has launched her own non-profit called Project 2020. Project 2020 gives opportunities to youth in the San Francisco area to learn to swim and play water polo in areas where consistent access to these opportunities are very limited.

Many elite athletes have hardships: they don’t have the right opportunity, or somewhere along the way someone told them they weren’t tall enough or fast enough. Villa, however, has that distinct ability to take those hardships and use them in her favor and to push herself harder than anybody else. This is a hallmark of most of the world’s great athletes, and one that Villa embodies as well as anyone.