Anyone who has followed women's water polo over the last decade knows Brenda Villa all too well. The Stanford grad and Castilleja coach from the largely Hispanic community of Commerce grew up playing with the boys, and hit the U.S. National Team scene exactly at the right time. Coming on board in the late 90s, Villa was able to step into a new world for the sport that saw inclusion in the Olympic Games and an increased presence in women's university action.
Considered by some to be perhaps too short and too stout to play the game at the elite level, she arrived in Rome with enough international hardware to fill the Foro Italico. Serving as captain over the recent run of greatness for this storied program, Villa has amassed a medal in nearly every major championship she has ever played in.
Villa will attempt to bring home yet another medal, preferably gold, when she leads the USA team into the 2011 FINA World Championships that begin Saturday in Shanghai, China. Once again, the U.S. will be among the favorites to win it all. The Americans will open against The Netherlands.
Villa has hauled in two silver medals (2000, 2008) and one bronze (2004) in Olympic competition. On three occasions she has won gold at the World Championships (2003, 2007, 2009) and once earned silver (2005). She has also taken gold at two Pan American Games (2003, 2007), a silver at the FINA World Cup (2002), and two bronze medals in FINA Junior World Championship play (1995, 1997).
Add to that a near domination in FINA World League Super Final action that has seen the United States win four titles in the six-year history of the event. The gold in Rome was just another bullet point in a storied career that has seen success at nearly every turn.
"I think it (Rome) finally puts to light what USA water polo has done in the last decade," she said."We went from before (then head coach) Guy Baker came on in 1998 placing eighth in Worlds, to be able to turn it around and after 2001 we have been in every final. It blows my mind, thinking of it in that way, in the last four World Championships we have been in a final, it's a pretty good stat to have."
Villa, along with teammate Heather Petri are two of the most-decorated women to ever play women's water polo. Coupled with a team coming off a victory in the World League Super Final this past June in Kirishi, Russia, they cruised into Southern Italy with eyes on a prize they have become very familiar with. Yet they always remain cautiously optimistic.
"We don't believe it until it's done," Villa said, "It's not that we aren't confident, we just wait to see how it goes. We have been close on many occasions and been on the short end of the stick, so we like to just wait and see what happens on that day, and stay more in the moment."
The one new wrinkle for the U.S. came in 2009 — a new coaching staff for Villa and company, something she hasn't seen since the late 90s. With new head coach Adam Krikorian coming on board in the spring, the onus was on veterans like Villa to keep the group intact as they tackled the latest major challenge.
Consider the challenge met as the squad worked their way through competition under the blistering Italian sun. After dispatching with Kazakhstan in a walkover win to start the tourney, an up and coming Russian team downed the United States to put a fork in their plans of a bye to the quarterfinals. Undaunted they powered on with a win over Greece to close out group play. In the quarterfinals the red, white, and blue dispatched of China and then Greece again in the semifinals behind a breakout performance from defender Elsie Windes.
From there it was realized the United States had come to Europe, only to meet up with their neighbor to the north, Canada. The two had met several times already in 2009 before their pivotal matchup in Rome. When the dust settled it was a hard-fought win for the Americans in a one goal victory that found Villa right back on top of another podium, a place she loves to be.
"I like being up there and it is comfortable, any time you hear your national anthem you get a new set of emotions. Every tourney is different and brings out different emotions and satisfactions," said Villa. "It's new because it doesn't get old, if it gold old you would stop playing."
Seems like what remains new for Villa has become pretty standard stuff for the rest of the water polo world.
Joining Villa on the U.S team will be fellow Stanford grad Jessica Steffens, current Cardinal players Annika Dries and Melissa Seidemann plus incoming freshman Maggie Steffens.
The men's roster for the World Championships includes Stanford grads Peter Varellas, Peter Hudnut, Tony Azevedo and Layne Beaubien.
In other water polo news:
USA Men's Junior National Team co-head coaches Robert Lynn and Guy Baker have announced the roster for the upcoming 2011 FINA Junior World Championship set for Volos, Greece this Aug. 27-Sept. 4.
The team includes Stanford teammates Alex Bowen, Nick Hoversten and Paul Rudolph from Sacred Heart Prep.
The team opens with Spain on August 27 followed by South Africa on August 28, Mexico on August 29, and Serbia on August 30.
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