Brenda Villa was a highly touted Stanford water polo player in 2000 when she competed in her first Olympics.
The 2000 Games in Sydney also marked the introduction of women’s water polo to the Olympic stage.
At age 20, Villa was the second-youngest player on the squad, and at 5-feet-4, the shortest, but experience and height limitations didn’t stop her from leading Team USA with nine goals on its way to a silver medal.
“Water is the equalizer; that’s the beauty of a water sport,” Villa said by phone from Long Beach where she and the San Francisco-based U.S. National Water Polo Team are training for this summer’s World Aquatics Championships in Shanghai. “I have to be quicker and anticipate more to make up for my small stature.”
After Shanghai, the Pan American Games in Mexico will be next up in the fall for Villa and the national team, followed by qualifying tournaments for the 2012 Olympics.
Should the U.S. earn a spot, the London Olympics will be the fourth and final Games for Villa, now an elder statesman for the American team.
“My role is kind of shifting,” said Villa, now 31. “I’m more of a passer than four or five years ago.”
Villa, who in April returned home after completing the season for her club team in Italy, dove into coaching last fall, leading the girls’ water polo team at Palo Alto’s Castilleja High School to the Central Coast Section finals.
The 2002 winner of the Peter J. Cutino Award, college water polo’s equivalent of the Heisman Trophy, Villa began playing the game at the age of 8.
Villa’s mom never learned how to swim in her native Mexico and wished for her kids to be safe in the waters of Southern California. With the absence of a girls’ team, Villa played with older brother Edgar on the Bell Gardens High School team where she was recruited by Stanford in 1998.
Thirteen years later Villa, whose scoring prowess once prompted a coach to dub her the “Wayne Gretzky of women’s water polo,” remains a force in the game and is thankful for the support of the Women’s Sports Foundation.
A $10,000 grant from the foundation’s travel and training fund will help finance the U.S. team’s pursuit for the elusive Olympic Gold.
“We are very honored to receive this grant,” Villa said. “We’re trying to stay at the elite level, and it takes money to travel the world.”
History: The U.S. women earned silver medals in 2000 and 2008, with a bronze coming in 2004
Women’s Sports Foundation: $100,000 in grants were awarded in April to 19 individuals and five teams