Brenda Villa: Balance and Belief
- by Kim Krueger, '11 Human Biology Stanford Women's Water Polo
This is never going to work. That single doubtful thought is all I have time for though, because the next thing I know, the ball is in the air. I’m not entirely sure what to do. I’m not open and I don’t have a plan. Years of water polo experience, or just plain common sense, make the next step obvious: Get open.
The pass, a long arcing affair thrown at just the right velocity, gives me just enough time to get my hand free above the water and away from my defender. I didn’t need a plan to know what to do next. Without thinking, the ball is in the back of the goal.
Brenda Villa just made me look really, really good. And that is why I love playing with her; she makes you look good while doing most of the work herself. She executed an extremely difficult play by locating me from across the pool, noting the body positioning of both my defender and me, and making an appropriate pass based on what she saw. Beyond the physical nature of the pass, Brenda also had to trust me. She’s a three-time Olympian. She doesn’t need to pass very often if she doesn’t want to, but she has no problem passing to anyone on the team. In fact, Brenda loves passing, and her passes always come with a little something extra. I think the word I’m looking for is expectation. She does her share of the work and she expects you to do yours, and to do it well. That’s the only reason I score that ball – Brenda raises the stakes.
Home Grown Hero
Brenda Villa came to Stanford because she loved the color purple. The rest of the story is a little more complicated, but not to Brenda’s seventh grade self. When she first saw the Stanford “S” from afar on the swim caps of the women’s swim team, it looked purple, her favorite color, and she fell in love. Her obsession with the purple “S” started as a joke, but eventually became more serious as she got older. As she learned more and more about the institution that bears that big “Cardinal S,” she discovered there was a lot more to like about Stanford than its colors. Ultimately, though, the older, more knowledgeable Brenda picked Stanford for the same reason purple-loving seventh grade Brenda did: a perception of unlimited possibility.
Growing up in Commerce, California, Brenda was worlds away from a place like Stanford. As of the 2000 Census, Commerce was 94% Hispanic with a median per capita income of $11,000 and a median household income of $34,000. Brenda takes a lot of pride in her home and where she came from, but the odds were decidedly against her. In terms of water polo, the disadvantages are more physical in nature. Brenda stands five feet, four inches tall, and has tiny hands. There was no smaller water polo player at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, yet, arguably, there was also no better water polo player than Brenda. In high school, despite her size, she had to play on a boys team because there wasn’t a team for girls. This could not have been an easy experience for a teenage girl in a somewhat conservative Latino community. When college coaches began to recruit Brenda, her parents, Mexican immigrants, required an interpreter in order to participate in the conversations. Brenda overcame obstacle after obstacle, and in the end, only needed a single opportunity to capitalize on.
Brenda admits that she may never have played water polo if she did not happen to grow up in Commerce, California. In spite of all the ways her hometown made it difficult for her, Commerce gave Brenda at least one huge opportunity. In Commerce, sports programs are subsidized by the city. This means that the athletes get to practice, play, and compete nearly cost-free. It’s no mystery why Brenda feels such a strong connection to her hometown. Back in Commerce, though, the legend of Brenda continues to grow. For example, the beautiful $19 million Commerce Aquatorium, a new addition since Brenda’s childhood days, is often called “the pool that Brenda built.” Seen as a result of her successes, the pool only adds to Brenda’s hometown celebrity status. Often the guest of honor at city functions, she jokes that the city needs a new face, but anyone who knows Brenda knows she would never say no to Commerce.
Brenda’s commitment to Commerce is matched only by her commitment to her family. One college friend says she was even able to pick up a little bit of Spanish from Brenda’s calling home so often with stories about school. It was her mother, after all, who put her daughter in swimming lessons at a young age as a precaution against living so close to the ocean. It was also her mother who always made Brenda finish her homework before practice because she understood education was crucial for success in the United States. Both investments paid off. Brenda became the first person in her immediate family to go to college and the first person ever from her high school to attend Stanford. Being a first generation college student was an incredibly important achievement for Brenda, but that did not make her any less nervous about leaving her hometown community behind.
Home of Champions
There is just something about Stanford that is different. It’s hard to articulate, but Brenda knew it. At Stanford, Brenda could put herself in a position to pursue the highest standards of academic excellence, while competing at the highest level of water polo. Furthermore, at Stanford, Brenda wouldn’t be the only one in such a position. Stanford is filled with true scholar-athletes, scholar-Olympians, even Rhodes Scholars. One of Brenda’s close friends and teammates, Lauren Faust, put it best when asked about Brenda at Stanford: “Because she is so competitive and unique, she really needed well-rounded greatness to push her. It’s hard to be the top of the iceberg, and Stanford could offer her everything.” Stanford was, and continues to be, the place where people like Brenda with huge potential and limitless ambition come to grow and to learn from each other. This unique combination of a community of competitors, two characteristics that are so often antithetical, creates the Stanford champion. With so many like-minded individuals and incredible opportunities to pursue, it is no wonder Brenda felt at home.
As much as Brenda loved Stanford, it would be two years before she actually got to spend a complete year at school. Juggling national team commitments throughout college, she was only in school for a single quarter before being out for two, then in for one more before being out for another two. When Brenda did finally get to spend a full year on campus, she was required to take classes that most students normally complete their freshman year. Yet, two years into her fragmentary college experience, Brenda’s enthusiasm for being at Stanford did not dull in the slightest. When asked about being a twenty-one year old in freshman classes, Brenda simply said, “I saw it as an opportunity to meet more friends that would be with me the next couple years in school. It actually gave me more confidence in section to speak up and participate.” For another person in another place, the challenges of being in and out of school might have been too much, but typical of Brenda, and typical of most Stanford students, challenge becomes an opportunity.
With so many ways to get involved on campus, Stanford students are able to move in and out of any number of smaller communities. For Brenda, that smaller community was the water polo team. Teams are certainly miniature communities of their own. The shared experience of being a varsity athlete at Stanford is a powerful bonding force. However, Brenda’s team community was not confined to the pool. When Brenda speaks about her teammates, more often than not the focus is on the bigger picture. As Brenda says, “You don’t have to like or hang out with your teammates outside of the pool. I wanted to spend time outside of Avery with my teammates, take classes with teammates that had the same interests.” Brenda’s teammates were her friends, and still are her friends, and she admires them for their pursuits in and out of the pool. The three other girls in Brenda’s class on the team are currently in medical school. In college, the team tutored as a group in an East Palo Alto elementary school. Brenda and her teammates expected just as much out of themselves in the classroom and in the community as they did in the pool.
Brenda relished every opportunity to don a Stanford swim cap. She could not imagine anything better than playing in Stanford’s Avery Aquatic Center with a big purple – scratch that – cardinal “S” emblazoned on her suit and cap. Brenda’s attachment to the pool has never wavered, even after all her international travels and experiences. Avery is still her favorite place to play. Maybe it is because of the momentous occasions she has been a part of in the pool – like the first varsity women’s collegiate water polo championship final. Or maybe it is because of the good memories she has in the pool – like looking up to find her parents smiling in the stands before every home game. Or maybe it is because in Avery, Brenda has a physical embodiment of her two most prominent characteristics: competition and community. Avery represents a merging of all her communities: water polo, Stanford, and even a little bit of home. Whatever it was, it began in college, and today, at 30, she keeps coming back for more.
Brenda was recently named the world’s women’s water polo player of the decade. Considering that women’s water polo made its Olympic debut in the 2000 Sydney Games, where Brenda helped the US to a silver medal, that title is pretty much synonymous with the best player ever. She has the hardware to prove it, too: a 2002 collegiate national championship, a Cutino award (water polo’s Heisman Trophy), two Olympic silver medals, an Olympic bronze medal, and two gold medals at the World Championships, to name a few. With all her success, you can imagine Brenda would have a number of options to pursue after her playing career is over. It wouldn’t even be much of a surprise if she simply went back home. Yet, when her playing days are over, Brenda only wants to be one place: back here, at Stanford. She wants to be in and around the community that nurtured her and gave her the skills to eventually pay forward what the Commerce community gave her as a child.
The one piece in Brenda’s path that acted as a catalyst for all she has experienced thus far was the water polo program in Commerce. Brenda would have still been an incredibly competitive, strong, driven individual, but she may never have entered the water polo world. Brenda recognizes this fact all too well. It is the guiding force for her future endeavors. She knows what she experienced in Commerce was special, but what she doesn’t understand is why that sort of experience, that type of opportunity, remains so limited. She explains, “I would love to use the Commerce model in a different area. I refuse to believe that this happened by chance or that it is an anomaly.” Brenda is slowly but surely formulating a plan to build and share a community of her own. Aiming to work in the East Palo Alto or East Menlo Park area, Brenda hopes to spread her love of sports and academics. She says, simply, “I figure the way I could give back is helping other little girls just like me get involved and not allow their income level or other obstacles to get in their way.” The confidence and clarity with which she speaks about her ideas makes me think that she’ll have just as much success in the future as she has already enjoyed.
THE STRENGTH WITHIN
I keep thinking about that fantastic connection between Brenda and myself the other day in practice. The pass was a difficult one, but Brenda saw it, seized it, and brought out some of my best play. I had doubts, but Brenda’s intensity made me believe. This is what Brenda has been doing her whole life – playing water polo.
To be a successful water polo player, you have to be fluid, constantly in motion, but you also need the strength within, the vital core strength, to anchor yourself and create a strong base. This is Brenda. Her inner drive means she is never at rest. Her connections to Commerce and Stanford anchor her wherever she goes. Water polo requires that you have vision of the pool and field of play; in order to make decisions, you need to assess the current situation and know your next move without abandoning your immediate responsibility. This sort of foresight has characterized Brenda’s whole journey. Even now, she has her eyes on the future, but she is completely invested in her current pursuits.
As a water polo player, I’ve always admired Brenda in the pool. She is the Michael Jordan of water polo – she has both the skills and the marketability. I’ve also always admired Brenda for her story, which is a familiar one around the program. Her story adds a bit of perspective on those days late in the quarter when I think homework and practice might consume me. Finally, I’ve come to admire Brenda as a person. From her drive, loyalty, and perseverance to her desire to give back, Brenda defines excellence.
When I walk onto the pool deck for my next practice with Brenda, Avery will be transformed into the Emerald City, as she describes it at night. The long, difficult practice ahead will be the opportunity I have earned for myself at Stanford. I would not put myself on the same level Brenda, but she would, and that is the beauty of Stanford. We all have a mutual respect for each other’s achievements, and we are all here because we’ve held ourselves to an impossible standard. Yet it is by this standard that we come to realize that the impossible is right within our grasp.
Kim Krueger, ’11, is an attacker on the Stanford women’s water polo team. Last season she scored 30 goals and earned All-National Collegiate Second Team honors. She spent last summer as a research and content development intern at Thrive Research while playing club water polo for Stanford and earning first team All-America honors. Kim is majoring in Human Biology.