Commerce honors Olympic champion Villa

There are nearly 10 million people that reside in Los Angeles County’s 88 cities.

In such a sprawling, diverse region that sees community blur into community as one large patchwork tessellation of a modern industrialized megalopolis, the sense of community and pride in one’s neighborhood is different from that experienced by those who grew up in smaller cities, across less occupied landscapes.

It is what makes watching the city of Commerce honor Brenda Villa, a four-time Olympian and recent gold medal winner with the U.S. Women’s Water Polo team, particularly refreshing. There are very few places across the county where one person means so much to one community.

In this case, it’s a water polo-crazed community.

“She has put us on the map, and brought back world recognition,” said Mayor Lilia R. Leon, noting that Villa, 32, has openly acknowledged the impact Commerce has had throughout her life.

Villa, perhaps the greatest player in the history of the sport, is a water polo phenom that was refined and developed by both Bell Gardens High School and the state-of-the-art Commerce Aquatorium, which was renamed in her honor in a community-reinforcing ceremony at Rosewood Park in the city of 13,000 Sunday afternoon.

A four-time high school All-American and four-time All-CIF selection, Villa began playing water polo at age six as part of friendly competition with her older brother. After emerging as a premier young talent in the game in her early teens, some of her most channeled maturation in the sport came at Bell Gardens, where she was the most dominant player – on the boy’s team.

Though occasional barbs were thrown her way by opponents who just didn’t quite get it, they never stuck.

“My teammates always supported me and told me ‘if you score on a boy, they can’t say anything,” Villa said.

“I think the moment we won CIF, and I think I was the first girl to be a starter and be a contributor on a team, it’s like, at that point, ‘she’s just an athlete. It doesn’t matter.'”

She has played water polo in five continents. From Commerce she left for Palo Alto, where she scored 69 goals her freshman year and was tabbed the NCAA Women’s Water Polo Player of the Year. While enrolled in Stanford she took a side trip to Sydney, where in the gold medal game of the 2000 Olympics she tallied a dramatic final-minute game-tying goal against Australia before ultimately settling for a silver medal in a 4-3 loss. She and the United States won bronze in Athens and silver in Beijing before rallying throughout the 2012 Games and capping an 8-5 gold medal game win over Spain that culminated in her first trip atop the podium. She has twice won gold at the World Championships.

The emotion never overcame Villa until Sunday afternoon, when she finally let loose tears after watching highlights from earlier in her career, and while listening to a pageant of compliments bestowed upon her by civic representatives and community organizers. Citadel Outlets, the behemoth shopping center located across a tidy neighborhood and Interstate 5 from Rosewood Park, donated $1,000 to Project 2020, a program co-founded by Villa that brings water polo and swimming lessons to young girls of lower income areas on the San Francisco Peninsula.

“I grew up in the city of Commerce, and they’ve given me so much, so I want to be able to give back,” Villa said. “My foundation – I want to model it after the city of Commerce.”

To replace the original aquatics structure, built in 1961, the city erected a new $20-million  Aquatorium in 2001. In addition to helping define the early path of Villa’s career, it was also the training ground of fellow 2008 Olympian, Patty Cardenas, and adds a healthy, active element of civic pride.

“We are very, very proud that you are a Commerce resident, and that every opportunity, Brenda, you always mentioned the city of Commerce,” Mayor Leon said.

Having accepted the key to the city following her 2004 Olympic performance in Athens, on Sunday she cut the ceremonial ribbon and stood proudly as the grand structure she trained at for years now displayed her name. A larger-than-life gold medal was draped against the wall, itself a fulfilling reminder of a career that concluded in triumph.

“I’m speechless still,” Villa said. “The tears finally came out, and that’s three weeks later, here, in my city. But it’s a compilation of more than 12 years of work. To be able to have it at the end of my career is just the icing on the cake.”

Beyond a crowd peppered with Dodger blue, kids kicked soccer balls across the park while a pick-up game started up across the street. Other park-goers took advantage of the volleyball nets, all under the proud backdrop of the Brenda Villa Aquatic Center. Civic and athletic participation have always been intertwined for the former CIF champion.

“To be around the people that I grew up with, or to have their kids now wanting my autograph, or for them to say ‘I want to play water polo, or I want to do this,” that’s all I want. I never asked to be a role model,” she said. “But if I could get everyone in the water, or playing some kind of team sport, that’s a goal of mine. Team sports teach you so much, so as long as something positive can come out of all of this.”