Four-time Olympians Villa, Azevedo still searching for gold
Former Stanford water polo standouts hope to achieve their elusive goal in London Games
Stanford grads Brenda Villa and Tony Azevedo have become the faces of the United States Olympic water polo teams.
Villa was in from the beginning, helping shape the women's team into an international powerhouse. Azevedo, often called the world's greatest water polo player and certainly the best in the U.S., created a renewed interest in the sport among Americans.
Villa plans to retire from the U.S. national team following the 2012 London Olympic Games, although she still has a job coaching at Castilleja.
A commitment to the national team requires an all-encompassing, time-consuming way of life and Villa has spent most of the past 10 years doing exactly that. She's helped guide the sport from afterthought to international recognition.
It's time to take a step back and breathe a little bit.
"I have Stanford teammates with whom I have stayed in touch," Villa said. I miss things. I've missed birthdays and weddings. Margie Dingeldein just got married and I missed her wedding. Jackie Frank is in medical school. I see those teammates doing amazing things."
Azevedo is a different story. He was born into a water polo family and has devoted his career to raising the United States out of obscurity. The journey began when he was the youngest member of the team at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, not yet enrolled at Stanford.
Azevedo spends his spare time playing overseas in some of the toughest leagues in the world. It made him even more committed to helping the U.S. compete for gold.
For both Azevedo and Villa, the gold medal symbolizes the final elusive step needed to make the journey succeed.
Both have shared the podium on each side of the top rung. This year, they wish to stand on top.
Azevedo's final words following his final game at Stanford, a loss to USC in the NCAA championship game in 2004, were "I'm going to play professionally in Italy and then help the United States win a gold medal."
At the time, the Americans had not even medaled since the 1988 Seoul Games. He's holding himself to that promise.
Azevedo is already formulating plans for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. He was born in Brazil and still has family there. He if continues into 2020, he would tie the record for most Olympics in water polo.
Stanford won the NCAA title twice during the Azevedo era, when he dominated the college arena like never before. He was named the national Player of the Year all four years and left Stanford with a school record of 332 goals.
"In my mind, I'm gonna win the gold one way or another," Azevedo told USA Today. "That's definitely something that kept me motivated."
Azevedo led the team in scoring, with 17 goals, to help the U.S. win its first medal in 20 years at the 2008 Beijing Games.
He scored a team-high 15 goals in the 2004 Athens Games and had 13 as a high school player in 2000.
A three-time United States Olympic Committee Player of the Year, Azevedo's value to the sport to which he has dedicated a lifetime reaches far beyond the pool. He has graced the covers of hundreds of magazines and inspired a whole generation of players that will keep America vibrant in the sport.
Earlier this year, the U.S. beat powerhouses Hungary and Serbia during an exhibition series on American soil. The U.S. understands how close it is to the top of the podium.
"If everyone is on the same page, you're moving more like a machine," Azevedo said in the USA Today article. "You get to learn more about your teammates, how someone reacts, how to talk to them, how to inspire them. I think that's a really important part. Ideally, especially in a team sport, it's which team is better not which 13 individuals are better."
Team USA has three other Stanford grads on its roster: Peter Varellas, Peter Hudnut and Layne Beaubein. They have all played on national collegiate championship teams and were members of the 2008 silver medal ride.
Villa has another Stanford grad around her in Jessica Steffens. Several others will be returning to Stanford in the fall and a run at a third straight NCAA title. Melissa Seidemann and Annika Dries played on Stanford's 2011 national title team. Maggie Steffens has yet to play for the Cardinal.
"I genuinely enjoy playing water polo and have fun doing it as this level," Villa said. "The travel, the team, competing, it's still fun. It's fun to train with a group of winners every day."
Villa, at age 32, is not the oldest on the team. That honor belongs to Cal grad Heather Petri, 34. Villa is, however, the most decorated women's water polo player the United States has ever known.
FINA Magazine, which covers the world, named her the Female Water Polo Player of the Decade for 2000-10.
Like Azevedo, she left Stanford as the school's all-time leading scorer and with a national title. And also like Azevedo, only a gold medal would add to her legacy.
Still, a new future awaits her following these Olympics.
"When you get older it's harder," Villa said. "Realistically you don't know if you can do it financially any more. It's time to join the real world and I'm excited to see what's next."