On a recent morning in Commerce, water polo playing sisters Priscilla and Sarah Orozco were perched on the bleachers above their neighborhood swimming pool, getting ready to say goodbye to their families.
Recruited straight out of UCLA, both sisters would soon be traveling thousands of miles away and across oceans to play on professional teams abroad. Priscilla is signed to a team in Spain, while Sarah has signed with an Australian team.
In the U.S., competitive women’s water polo is strictly a college sport, and the sisters are doing what many American players with Olympic aspirations do when they can no longer play on college teams: they go abroad in order to stay in top competitive shape before the next Olympics. Even fellow Commerce water polo athlete, and now Olympic gold medalist, Brenda Villa, played on an Italian team when she was not competing with the U.S. team at the Olympics or other major competitions.
But before the Orozco sisters take off, there were lunch appointments with aunts and uncles to keep, and dinner invitations from church friends to attend to. For most of their lives they lived no more than five or ten miles away from their large, but close knit, network of immediate and extended family members.
“Our parents and our family know it’s for the best, but of course they’re going to be sad. It’s part of life. It’s bittersweet for them,” said Priscilla, who is older than Sarah by one year.
The sisters believe they have a shot at getting to the Olympics. They along with another Commerce native, Giselle Naranjo, distinguished themselves while playing in the highly competitive collegiate field, helping to take the UCLA team to a national title in 2009. Even before they graduated, talent scouts from overseas teams were recruiting them, and it doesn’t hurt that their coach at UCLA also led the U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal this year.
But to get there, Priscilla, who was considering a coaching job before the recruitment offers came in, says it is crucial that they continue to play competitively. “My fear is that if I were to stay here and not go abroad and play on a team, I would have to train on my own.”
For Sarah, who plays the attacker position and is known for her strength, the dream of the Olympics has always been there, just behind “God, my religion” and family. “I’ve had that passion since the beginning… it’s given me that extra push,” she says.
Priscilla plays a speed position and says water polo was not really her thing at first. “It was too physical for me. The coach yelled too much. I just wasn’t aggressive enough… but then, once I matured in the sport, and got a little older, and got a little more playing time, I started to appreciate it more,” she said.
Priscilla grew up watching Villa ascend through the ranks of the women’s water polo world and laughs as she recalls how her idol made getting to the Olympics look so easy that, in her naiveté, she thought going to the Olympics would be no big deal. “I didn’t think it was that hard… there was somebody from my club and so it just gave me that much more confidence, and it still does,” she said.
It has helped that players like Villa, as well as Patty Cardenas who went to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, have given Commerce a reputation for producing good players. The door was open for the Orozcos to be recruited by top water polo colleges, and to play on the national youth team.
Mexico, in a bid to get its own team to the Olympics, even recruited Mexican-American players in Commerce, including the Orozcos to join them. They even based their training at the Commerce pool and hired Commerce’s long-time coach Gabriel Martinez. Though they placed sixth at the Pan American Games, an Olympics qualifier, and did not in the end get to compete in the Olympics, this was the best the Mexican team had ever done.
But perhaps the biggest influence on the sisters has been their parents. Though it will mean missing their daughters, they are the biggest supporters of them going abroad. Their father Sal says “first-hand” experience tells them this is what their daughters need to do. Their mother had an opportunity to travel to Japan to teach folkloric dance when she was fifteen, “but because of her young age and other family traditions, her parents never gave her permission to go on those kinds of trips,” he said. His wife did not want to “let history repeat itself.”
Priscilla and Sarah say that at every step, their parents have sought out opportunities for them, moving from El Monte to Commerce just so they could take advantage of the sports programs there, especially the Commerce Aquatorium (just recently renamed the Brenda Villa Aquatics Center following the U.S. women’s water polo team’s Olympic victory), that were free to residents. It was not easy at first. It took the Orozcos a couple years to snag a home in Commerce. During the last year, they lived in their grandmother’s home in East Los Angeles. “Her back alley is on the borderline between East L.A. and Commerce,” says Priscilla.
Their father would “rally up as many family members as he can” to see their high school and college games. Now they must settle for dispatches from Spain and Australia.
“We will especially miss not seeing them play since we would ‘move mountains’ and do whatever it took to see all of their games during the last 10 years,” said Sal, but he says it is worth it knowing “how important this journey is to them and to their careers in the sport and also the examples that they can be for so many other young female athletes.”