Water Polo Star Seeks Elusive Gold

Brenda Villa's trophy case has a silver medal and a bronze medal from past Olympic Games.

She only has one left to win, and perhaps only one more opportunity to win it.

The 2008 Beijing Olympics is an important one for Villa, a captain and attacker for the U.S. women's water polo team. As one of the veterans of the squad, Villa is competing in her third Olympic Games. She recognizes that it might be her final one, too, so that chance at an elusive gold medal has more urgency than ever.

"I approach all of them the same way--like it's your last," Villa said. "You never know what the future holds with any international competition. You have to leave everything out in the pool.

"I will admit, I do think about it as my final Olympics. I am 28 years old and there are other things in my life that I want to do."

For the past decade, it's been all about water polo for Villa.

Growing up in Commerce, California, Villa played high school water polo on the boys' team at Bell Gardens High because there weren't enough girls for a full roster. As a result, she played next to her older brother Edgar for two years.

"I don't think I got one compliment from him," Villa recalls. "That was my motivation."

Villa was named All-CIF three times and eventually signed with Stanford. There, she scored 172 goals in three seasons and led the Cardinal to the 2002 NCAA championship.

"I think I'm a better player for having the opportunity to play on a guys' team in high school," Villa said. "I was fortunate to grow up playing with the boys I ended up playing in high school with. I was comfortable with them, they respected me and they treated me like another player."

Villa went to the 2000 Sydney Olympics as a wide-eyed 20-year old. At that point in her career, she admitted, "you don't think about expectations and outcomes. You're like a kid in a candy store."

The U.S. took silver in 2000, then bronze in 2004 with Villa again on the roster. She's now a key veteran for the 2008 squad that's considered one of the world's strongest teams.

Her role is different this time around, and she knows it. While she was a helping hand as a younger player, she's now an important team leader.

"I've always looked up to her," said teammate Patty Cardenas, who's also from Commerce but four years younger than Villa. "Seeing her go off to college and be on the national team just inspired me. I wanted to be just like her."

Villa has accomplished plenty, but one victory still needs to be earned--an Olympic gold medal to put on the mantle next to the silver and bronze she's already taken care of.

"It'd be great. Not only for me, but for USA water polo, for the women," Villa said. "The sport has grown so much in the last eight years, but we need a little more to get us on the national level as a mainstream sport. I think in the American culture, where it's first place or nothing, (a gold medal) would help."

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