Commerce Native Takes Gold In London

By Elizabeth Hsing-Huei Chou, EGP Staff Writer

It took four trips to the Olympics, but Brenda Villa finally got her gold. And she did it by making history.

For years, the United States women’s water polo team has made it to the medal stage, but always fell just shy of winning the gold medal. Their loss by a single point to the Netherlands team four years ago at the Beijing Olympics was an especially crushing experience. But last Thursday, with the veteran Villa as captain, the U.S. team beat Spain 8-5 in the final match-up. The team, buoyed by the energy of young talent like Maggie Steffans, who scored five of the goals, quickly pulled ahead to become the first U.S. women’s team to win an Olympic gold medal.

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This could be the last Olympics for Villa, who has been on the women’s US team since the sport made its debut at the 2000 Olympics. Claiming the gold medal along with her 12 teammates in London made the victory that much sweeter.

Commerce native Brenda Villa, left, and long-time teammate Heather Petri, right. (Photo by Jeff Cable)

Not only does this year’s team get to bask in their victory, “the gold medal honors all those teammates” through the years who helped to build up the U.S. water polo program and spread this demanding and physical sport to a larger, more diverse audience, Villa said in an interview with EGP on Tuesday.

Last Thursday at Commerce City Hall, cheers and applause filled the city council chambers, where family, friends and neighbors had gathered to watch their hometown favorite and Team USA finally capture the gold.

Villa is expected to visit Commerce soon, and local residents can’t wait. They’ve had a chance to hold her bronze, and two silver medals, now they want to see her gold medal up close.
The four-time Olympic medalist recently announced her intention to retire from competition, but her story, which includes playing on the Bell Gardens High School boys water polo team and living across the street from the Commerce Aquatorium pool where she learned the sport, has and will continue to inspire local youth waiting in the wings for their own shot at Olympic glory.

At last Thursday’s viewing party, eight-year old Mia Solorzano watched the gold medal final on the big projection screen set up in council chambers. Her father Adam said Mia’s “dream is to be like Villa.”
Like Villa, she has a real chance at achieving her dream.

Villa credits Commerce’s robust and low-cost sports programs for much of what she has achieved.

“I’m very grateful. If I didn’t grow up in Commerce, I wouldn’t have had the opportunities I’ve had,” she said.

While her time as an Olympic competitor might be at end, the same can’t be said for her involvement in water polo. Villa said she plans to settle in Northern California, where she will coach and run a non-profit that aims to give low-income youth opportunities to learn the sport.

Before water polo was even an Olympics sport, Villa looked up to the Olympic gymnasts and swimmers she saw on television, and dreamed of one day being like them. That dream finally came true last week in London.

Rachel Baltierra, Commerce’ aquatics program manager and one of Villa’s most spirited supporters during the watch party at city hall, said after all those near misses at gold, “she really wanted this one.”

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August 16, 2012  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.


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