BRENDA VILLA is one of the best water polo players in the world, but you wouldn't guess it if you saw her out of the pool. While most elite players are tall and rangy, Villa is short and stocky. "She's a Wayne Gretzky type," says U.S. Olympic coach Guy Baker. "He wasn't the biggest or fastest hockey player, but he was the best hockey player." And like Gretzky, Baker adds, "Brenda seems to be at her best when the best is required."
In 13 years on the women's national team, the 28-year-old Villa, a crafty passer and prolific scorer, has been a key player on U.S. squads that won medals at the last three world championships (gold in 2003 and '07, and silver in '05) and the last three Olympics (silver in '00 and '08, and bronze in '04). As captain of the team in Beijing, she tied for top U.S. scorer with nine goals in five games.
The talents that set Villa apart in the pool aren't so much physical as mental: She's smart, she knows the game and she has an almost panoramic vision of the action unfolding around her. "Brenda not only can see where defenders are," says John Tanner, who coached her at Stanford before she graduated with a political science degree in 2003, "she also has a sense for how they're likely to move."
Villa says her ability to anticipate comes from playing against boys while growing up in Commerce, Calif., where she was a four-time All-America on the boys' team at Bell Gardens High. "I was forced to think ahead to compensate for not being of the same height or the same strength," she says. Commerce, a largely Hispanic community of about 13,000 near East Los Angeles, fully subsidizes its youth sports, including the water polo programs that, since 2001, have operated out of the gleaming $19 million Commerce Aquatorium. "I don't know if I would have been able to do the sport if I had grown up anywhere else," says Villa. "I thank Commerce for everything I am."
She also credits her mom, Ines, and dad, Rosario, Mexican immigrants who raised three children while working in the garment industry. They supported Brenda's athletic pursuits even though the culture they came from expected girls to help at home after school. "My parents said, 'Just play sports,'" says Villa. "Thank God!"
Following Brenda's lead, about 45 girls from Commerce Aquatics have earned scholarships at Division I colleges in the last eight years, including Patty Cardenas, a senior at USC, who was Villa's teammate in Beijing. "Now all the girls in the program expect to take AP classes, because that's what Brenda did," says Commerce Aquatics coach Gabriel Martinez.
"I'd like to encourage more Hispanic girls to play sports because sports helps you with so many things in life," she says. "It doesn't have to be water polo; there are so many ways to help." Spoken like a true woman of panoramic vision.