Brenda Villa is the most decorated water polo player in the US. She has won everything before retiring in 2012. Originally from East Los Angeles, she moved to the Bay Area in 2010, two years before retiring. She started coaching at a private all-girl high school where she now works full-time as a water polo and swim coach and in the Equity and Inclusion department. She is also involved in multiple volunteering positions locally and nationally.
When did you start Water Polo and how?
At six years old, my brother and I started taking swimming lessons at the local school across the street from my house. We tried the swim team and then the water polo team. The club had a very good water polo team.
Can you give us a brief summary of your career?
My club team Commerce Aquatics was very successful at the national level. We won every age level at Junior Olympics. I then played water polo on an all-boy high school water polo team. In 1999 and 2000, I trained for the Olympics. Then, I went on to play for Stanford and won an NCAA title. After Stanford, I went to Athens 2004 and then played in Italy and won the Italian League title and a LEN Champions’ Cup title. I won gold medals at the 2003, 2007 and 2009 World Championships, at the Pan-American Games, Super World League and World Cup and Silver at the 2005 World Championships. I also won several Olympic medals: Bronze in 2004, Silver in 2000 and 2008 and Gold in 2012.
Are you the most decorated women water polo player in the US?
So I’ve been told. There are also other athletes who have now placed better than us but they don’t have the same amount of “hardware”. Fina also awarded me the female athlete of the decade from 2000 to 2010.
When did you retire?
In 2012, right after London. I knew I would be done after the 2012 Games.
When did you start thinking of retirement?
I thought about it after 2008 but decided to continue and then in 2010, I wasn’t having as much fun, I started thinking about it again. 2011 came around and I decided to push for it until London but I knew I would be done after that.
Had you started planning knowing you would be fully done after London?
Yes and No. I knew I didn’t want to be in my hometown for my retirement as I didn’t want to face the pressure and questions of people asking me what I would do next. I discussed my next moved with my college coach who was my mentor. I wanted to see what opportunities I would available in NorCal for me. In the fall of 2010, I moved to Northern California. I was coaching a high school team and training with my college team.
Did you become a professional water polo player after Stanford?
Can you survive playing water polo professionally?
Yes but it is difficult. My rent was covered and I received a little bit of money. But my family had limited means and this didn’t allow me to save as much as some of my other teammates. I had to live off my winnings and sponsorship money and this was never enough to save anything.
What did you do after you retired?
I was already coaching at the high school and I knew I would continue to do that. It is at a private all-girl school. With the money I won in London and the advertising campaign I did with P&G “Thank you Mum”, I had enough to allow me to last a year with my part-time coaching and figure things out.
What have you done since London and what do you do now?
I started a program for the under resourced in the Bay Area. I coached the high school fall season. And then three years ago, I got hired to work full time for the school. I coach water polo and swimming and I also work in the community engagement department. I work with the students: I help them collaborate with outside groups and I run a summer program at the school.
Did you always want to work at a school?
I had never thought of working at a school because I’m not a teacher. Now I realize that some of the work I was doing with the under-resourced community is part of equity and inclusion work. There is a space in the independent school system to do that type of work.
How was your transition after you retired? What challenges did you face?
It was hard for a year at least. To be the best at something and then have to figure things out on your own is challenging. I spoke to the psychologist from the US Olympic Committee. I remember driving from LA to San Francisco and crying talking to him on the phone wondering what I was going to do. It is hard not knowing if you are going to be as passionate about something as you were with your sport.
Do you feel you are still transitioning?
Yes I am still transitioning. Now I know what my skills and resume can get me but I don’t know exactly what I want to do. I am trying to think about what skills I can leverage moving forward.
Do you know what job you would want to do in the future?
I have some ideas. For example, I would love to work for LA 2028. It is my hometown and I would love to be involved, maybe managing one of the venues or continuing the legacy after the Games. I need to move back to LA to be in a position to be ready for this. Maybe I could combine working for a high school using the skills and experience I currently have with something with LA2028 or the local community.
ou played a team sport, how did you manage the loss of social network after retiring?
This is what I missed the most: the everyday automatic support. When you are having a though day, there is always someone to see you, touch you and support you. When everything was over, we were no longer in the same room, the same area and we had to text to stay in touch but it is not the same.
Did you have any other support system?
Yes, my college coach who lives in the Bay Area. After London, I probably met with him weekly for coffee for about a year. It is so great and it reinforced the fact that I made the right decision in picking Stanford as my college. It is amazing that this older guy who has a completely different background to mine is able to help me and we can relate to each other. We didn’t just talk about water polo we also talked about life. We haven’t met recently but it is either because I am okay or we are just both too busy.
What about your physical changes and not having to exercise daily? How did you deal with that?
Oh my god, I haven’t dealt with that at all!
In 2014, I was getting married so I trained a bit before that. I did boot camp with a friend and we trained together. Then I had my first kid and now I really need to get fitter if I want to have another one. This is definitely an area where the transition has been awful. The only form of exercise I like is playing water polo and it is not very accessible. I hate exercising on my own. I need support around me.
Can you exercise and not be competitive about it?
Yes. When it comes to things like boot camp, I know I am not the fastest or strongest so I am not going to try to beat everybody and kill myself but I do know I have endurance and the will to finish.
Was your husband involved in your transition?
He and I have been dating since 2008 and we have known each other since high school. I think it is hard for him because I am so involved with water polo. I am still so involved and busy and he probably thought I would be done with water polo after I retired. So we are still transitioning as I am still giving so much time to water polo.
Are you still involved in water polo?
I am coaching at the high school. I am on the Board of USA Water Polo. I am on the Executive Committee of UANA (Americas Aquatics Association). I give clinics here and there. I have a small club team in Menlo Park. I am on the Advisory Committee for the Women’s Sport Foundation. It is not water polo only but still sport related.
How do you manage all of this with a 2-year old?
I don’t know! Now, I’ve started thinking about reducing some of my involvement. But a lot of these things are four-year terms so soon I will have to start making some choices, as I don’t want to be away that much.
Do you travel a lot?
It is scattered but most of it is during the summer. For example, I am going to China for the FINA Aquatics Convention and I will go to the Pan-Am Games in August.
Have you considered working in sport administration? You have the perfect profile for this.
I would love to push the equity between genders and to promote better access to sport especially for water polo which is a very affluent sport. But a lot of these administrative or political positions are volunteer positions. I don’t have the means to be able to pursue these positions full time.
Have you considered following a more “traditional business” career after Stanford and move away from want polo?
I did want to be a lawyer. But I would have had to compromise my competitive career and it didn’t make sense for me at that time. I was focused on my sporting career. I have considered doing a master since I retired. But is it worth the time and investment? I would prefer to be trained on the job so I would not have to get into debt to learn.
Is this something you wish you had thought of when you were still competing?
There is a program at Stanford where you can do your undergraduate and a master in five years. In hindsight, I would have like to do this especially as I only played three seasons so I should have been able to put the time into it. But at that point, I was older and I wanted to be done with school.
Did your family give you guidance with education and studies?
There is no academic experience at home. My parents didn’t go to college. Even on my recruiting trips, I had my club coach on some of the meetings because my parents didn’t necessarily understand all the nuances of collegiate athletics.
What skills have you transferred from your sport that you use in your work or every day life?
I am great collaborator, a great team player. At my school, this is what we are trying to teach to incoming students.
I am also flexible and willing to work through things. I am willing to work long hours or to make decisions to help everyone. I don’t get frazzle too easily. I don’t think of myself as enthusiastic, smiling and engaged but others see me that way. I always think of my competitive self and being driven.
Did you have time to do other things when you played water polo professionally?
I didn’t and that is one thing I wish I could have done. Some of my teammates did and they had internships. I did do a “Ready Set Go” program down in LA and it interested me. In this program, you are teamed up with a school and you conduct a kind of PE lesson with the student to keep them active and engaged.
Do you still play water polo?
I went 2017 Master World Championships so I played in the lead up to that. I play Master National every summer except the summer my daughter was born. Since June, I haven’t played much because life has been so busy.
Are you still in touch with your teammates?
Yes. I am in contact with teammates from most of my teams via group texts, Instagram. We don’t talk every day but we are still connected.
Do you have other interests outside of sport or water polo?
Right now, I like to spend time with my family and I like to travel. Having a child changes your perspective and it heightened everything. I want to be able to show my daughter the world and spend time with her. I would say that the political climate has peaked my interest and motivated me to do more in my communities and not necessarily limited to water polo.
Do you miss the highs and lows of competition?
For sure. I don’t think it could ever be the same. Although, I had a similar feeling as a coach recently. We lost a game and now I can’t help thinking about what we need to do to win. It made me think about what I would do if I were coaching at the highest level. I liked being at the elite level because there were a lot of tactical elements whereas, at the high school level, you teach mostly technique.
Did your teammates support you during your transition?
Several of us retired after London and it was important for us to stay connected and did things together. It helped with closure. And we wanted to learn how to interact with each other after our sporting career.
Did you receive support from other people?
I was connected enough that I had a lot of opportunities to discuss and connect with people but I wasn’t ready. I had these conversations with my contacts but I wasn’t ready to ask for what I needed or to leverage any of these connections in a meaningful way. I was so into my head and trying to understand where I was at and how to deal with my transition.
Follow Brenda on LinkedIn.