Villa, Star of '08

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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

Surely swimming phenom Michael Phelps will top most '08 year-end lists from sports writers and broadcasters. Count me in on that choice. But there was an American athlete who medaled in Beijing whose story didn't get enough attention, in my opinion.

The scene begins right here in Commerce, California. The city was incorporated back in 1960 when community leaders decided they wanted to create a safe and productive haven for their kids and their elderly. So they separated themselves from the crime pockets and depressed neighborhoods of East L.A. and one of the first decisions Commerce made in creating their little corner of Paradise was to invest in sports. With the population at 95% Latino, soccer and baseball and boxing got fields and facilities and coaches. All of that was progressive enough but what was truly unusual about the building of this Paradise was the citizens' decision to invest in a state-of-the-art Aquatic Center. Traditionally, swimming and diving are the playgrounds of wealthy suburbs. But, by the early 1970's, the pool of blue-collar Commerce was the center of social activities for parents, the in place to be for kids. At that time, a former Olympic swimmer named Sandy Nitta, who knew only too well the burnout that comes with logging endless laps, threw a couple of garbage cans into the corners of the pool and started a water polo program so the kids could have fun playing a game while still honing their swimming skills. And, at that time, a mother who emigrated to Commerce from Mexico, Rosario Villa, took her three kids to the pool with the sole objective of safety. With her family occasionally going to the beach, with all the pools in Southern California, she intended her kids to learn how to swim. How could Mrs. Villa have possibly imagined that her little daughter Brenda would become one of the best water polo players in the world?

Brenda was fast. She was strong. But, more than anything, she played on the club teams with her older brother. Constantly with the boys on her team, against the boys on other teams, she was forced to anticipate their moves, get to the spot before they even thought of it. By age 16, Brenda was world-class.

As fortune would have it, not only was this unlikely sport and this unlikely gorgeous Aquatic Center booming in Commerce just as Brenda was growing up there, but the long-fought battle to include women's water polo on the Olympic agenda was won just at Brenda Villa's time, too. The first inclusion of the sport was Sydney, Australia, 2000. Brenda was already a student at Stanford and at her prime. Her team came home with a silver medal and it is wild understatement to say that the kids at the Commerce pool were over the moon at getting to actually touch that medal. One of those girls, Patty Cardenas, held that precious medal and said "This is what I want." Flash forward through Athens, 2004. Brenda and her US teammates again reach the Olympic medal platform. And again this year in Beijing, Brenda and the US squad, this time with young Patty Cardenas from Commerce on the team, yet again win Olympic silver.

To spend an afternoon with Brenda Villa is to know a fierce competitor. She wants Olympic gold in the worst way and for that reason we'll most likely get to watch her in London in her fourth Olympics.

It's true. Her three medals, two silver and a bronze, over three Games don't match Michael Phelps' eight gold from Beijing.

But to come from a small, modest town in East L.A., to come from parents of poor Mexican roots, to make it to the upper echelon of schools in Stanford, and to win medals in three consecutive Olympic Games in a sport that usually hosts rosters of bluebloods, is a leviathan achievement.

Brenda Villa doesn't top my list of the great athletes of '08. But she's on that list. Unequivocally.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.



Diana Nyad