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, after all, the first time the American women had ever won gold. It was also 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. They didn’t have a girls’ team, so she wound up on the boy’s 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 happened. Some of my coaches compared 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 was 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 nature in the pool have served her career well. In three years on the Stanford team, she scored 172 goals and was awarded the top women’s collegiate water polo player in the country in both 2001 and 2002 .
Internationally, she was frequently the American Team’s 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 better than most.
Book her for your next water polo clinic to take your team to the next level!