Olympic champion Brenda Villa added water to her roots and flourished

Location is considered to be everything in real estate. And being near water? Well, an even bigger plus.

Turns out, it can also shape a destiny. If the most decorated woman in water polo history, Brenda Villa, hadn't lived in Commerce, California, the story of women's water polo might be different.

The Brenda Villa Aquatic Center, renamed in her honor after the 2012 London Olympics, stands as a testament. The outside sign of the building in placid Rosewood Park incorporates a design representing Villa's four Olympic medals -- one gold, two silvers and a bronze -- beside the letters of her name.

"The city at that point decided to name the center in her honor," said Rachel Baltierra, the aquatic program manager at the center for the past five years. She also noted that Villa's leading the USA team to a gold medal prompted the move.

The influence of Commerce on Villa went beyond a medal count. The aquatics program the city funded and promoted allowed Villa and her family to overcome something more primal: fear. It continues to provide the community lessons that facilitate a key component of the American Dream: that parents want a better life for their children.

Villa, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, didn't believe the news of the renaming when she first heard it.

"I always joked that they only named aquatic centers or any sport complex in honor of people that donate lots of money or pass away," Villa said. "I am so humbled that they considered it and made it happen. Ultimately, I say it's a tribute to my parents and the city that supported me my entire career."

A currency of time, sweat and tears was Villa's donation to women’s water polo, with an astoundingly long career spanning from her first Olympic Games in 2000 to her final one in 2012.

Villa learned to swim at the age of six, at the Commerce Aquatorium, which was built in 1961 and has since been expanded and renovated.

"The center I grew up going to is different than the one they named after me," Villa said. "It's all at the same park across the street from my parents' home. My mom was the initiator in getting her kids water-safe."

"... the real game-changer was the fact that lessons were affordable, and you could then join the [water polo] club team for free." Olympian Brenda Villa

Rosario, Brenda's mother, was afraid of the water, but she didn't want her children to fear it, so she signed them up for Commerce’s affordable swim lessons. The low-cost tradition continues today.

"The city of Commerce encourages us to teach this life skill [swimming]," Baltierra said. "Residents pay $6 for lessons, which are offered year round. The lessons are the feeder program for our competitive swim team as well as our water polo team."

Poolside during morning swim sessions, Baltierra pointed out a pair of current swim instructors who learned to swim at the center. Now they teach a new generation.

Maribel Palma, who has two children taking lessons, is grateful for the program.

"As a mom, I don't know how to swim, and I want them to learn," Palma said. "A lot of kids drown because they don't know how to swim."

The most recent census in 2010 reported the Hispanic residents of Commerce to be 94 percent of the population of the city. However, aquatic sports in general haven't had strong Latino participation.

"The low number of minorities in aquatics is due to access to facilities and high cost of entry," Villa said.

She believes that increased access to aquatics would make her own story more of the norm.

"If more programs like the city of Commerce existed in other predominately Hispanic communities, there would be many more Latinas [in aquatic sports]," she said.

Research by the USA Swimming Foundation indicates that up to 70 percent of black and 62 percent of Hispanic children in the United States cannot swim.

Rocillo Mascareno, another parent with two children enrolled in lessons at the aquatic center, admitted that she didn't know how to swim, either. But after watching her children, Sophia and Santiago Vasquez, begin swimming, she was inspired.

"I also want to learn," Mascareno said. "It helps your whole body."

After Villa learned how to swim, she joined the water polo program when she was 8. A team made up of mostly Latino athletes stood out in the sport, and sometimes other players had negative things to say.

"[Commerce Aquatics] team was one of the first that supported women's water polo," Villa said. "I was always naive about the under-breath comments we heard at tournaments because I was so focused on playing and having fun, but if I think hard enough, I remember."

While Villa was a particularly superlative athlete who developed in the Commerce aquatics program, a number of others have excelled and earned scholarships in water polo and swimming. Even without these rewards, Villa believes bringing water sports to the community is worthwhile.

"Sports teach life skills, like coping with failure, working well with others and enjoyment of exercise," she said.

Perseverance was certainly a lesson Villa learned in her quest for Olympic gold.

"My motivation came from the love of the game," Villa said. "If I wasn't still enjoying the grind and my teammates, I would have stopped before the [fourth Olympics], and I almost did. Luckily, my mom reminded me what was important, and I was able to focus on the things that mattered to get me through that last quad and reach the top."

Although Villa now lives in Northern California, she looks back at her Commerce years with fondness.

"I'm most proud of the fact that I was able to represent my city around the world and put it on the map as one of two four-time Olympic medalists in the world of water polo," she said.

"She is a great model to our kids in the city," Baltierra said. "[Villa] is the first one listed in the Hall of Champions [of the aquatics center]."

Representing positively to other Latinas is a responsibility Villa takes seriously.

"It is so important that Latinas can identify with sports heroes that look like them," Villa said. "I didn't really have that, and I think it would have helped me earlier on in my career to have the confidence to know that I belonged."

Although Villa's athletic achievements are impressive, the ultimate benefit of the center named after her could be all the Latino families who have learned to swim there.

As hard as she worked in water polo to make her dreams come true, Villa is acutely aware of the role luck and location played in her career.

"I often think about what my life would have been if I didn't grow up in Commerce," Villa said. "It wasn't so much that we had an Aquatic Center across the street, but the real game-changer was the fact that lessons were affordable, and you could then join the [water polo] club team for free. That is where the real opportunity came."

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