Shoppers at a local mall got a gold treat last week when the players from the 2012 gold medal-winning US Women’s Water Polo Team visited The Shops at Montebello to sign autographs and pose for pictures with fans.
People from the area and from across Southern California visited the mall for their chance to meet Olympians Brenda Villa, Courtney Mathewson, Lauren Wenger and Elsie Windes.
“Its a unique opportunity for folks to connect with the Olympic movement all together. It’s not often that people get a chance to meet Olympians in their daily lives. These woman are very inspiring,” Jen Rottenberg, Chief Marketing Officer for USA Water Polo, told EGP. “They got their gold medal, they came back and it’s really exciting for them to get to talk about that experience, with people and to share their success.”
Villa, a four-time Olympian and four time-medalist, was raised in Commerce, played on the boy’s water polo team at Bell Gardens High School and trained at the Commerce Aquatic center now named after her.
“The fact that we are able to be in Montebello, relatively close to where Brenda grew up and she’s this well known” is special, Rottenberg said. “I think its cool for people because we’re taking her and her teammates to the whole community.”
Villa met with fans and even family members at the event taking photographs, signing autographs and handing out imitation gold medals to her young fans.
“Its home, I grew up in this area so I always see a few people I know,” Villa told EGP. “So for me it’s nice because I feel I’m two degrees separated from everyone that shops at this mall.”
Sam Carpenter the Director of Marketing and Business Development with Simon Property Group which the owns the Montebello mall and others across the country, told EGP they enjoy putting together events like this for shoppers and the community.
“It’s a good community event, Carpenter said. “Brenda Villa is a local star, she’s from the community and we’re always looking for opportunities to work with and be partners with the folks that are in our backyard.”
Desiree Verdugo from City Terrace waited in line to take a photograph with the players and get the athletes’ autographs to add to her collection.
“I’m just a big fan of USA for one, Olympic sports and women athletes in general, so this is great,” said Verdugo.
Mathewson, who has visited the area before, told EGP she felt the mall atmosphere helps promote her sport.
“A lot of families go to the malls on the weekends, so you catch some people here that have never heard of water polo and you can interest them in a new sport,” Mathewson said. “So you get not only the fans but also people hanging out enjoying their day at the mall.”
Ryan Kotob, a 7th grader from Yorba Linda who plays water polo for So Cal, brought a water polo ball he bought online, which was used at the Olympic games, to get it signed before he headed to his own water polo tournament in Irvine.
“Ever since the Olympics started I just got really interested in Water Polo,” said Kotob.
Windes, who posed with her gold medal and shared it with fans, told EGP she hoped that the event inspires new athletes.
“It’s always fun to get the sport out there and show people the medal or inspire other players, or at least get the sport out there for young kids so maybe they’ll start playing,” said Windes.
Gloria Sanchez took her two young daughters who enjoy swimming to the event after cheering for Team USA during last summer’s Olympics.
“We heard that they were going to be here and since we watched the Olympics [my daughters] were really excited because they like Team USA,” Sanchez said.
Villa told EGP that water polo is a small sport and that it gets attention every four years with the Olympics, but she hopes the 2012 gold medal win will help the sport grow. Wenger also told EGP she was happy with the event’s turnout.
“It’s a great turnout, we’re just happy to be here in Montebello, I’ve never been here so it’s cool to spread the word of water polo and also see somewhere new,” said Wenger.