The Makings of a Master: ZUMO Interviews Brenda Villa
Brenda Villa transitioned from playing the game to inspiring the game. As a water polo phenom, she had a vision as a player to do great things and once she retired from the sport made those visions a reality. She continues to impact the game by coaching water polo beginners, being a strong voice for younger players, and using her experience as the foundation to elevate the game to new heights.
In her interview, Brenda shares with us her reflections as a player, her contributions as a board member and mentor to young players, and her vision for the future of water polo.
1. Did you know where you wanted your career to go before you retired as a player? Did you have a vision for your future career?
With the help of one of my mentors, I was able to imagine a life post water polo. I knew that I wanted to give back, in some capacity, to the sport that had given me so many opportunities, regardless of which career I followed. One vision for my future career was to start a non-profit focusing on access and opportunity into aquatics for under-resourced communities. This was the inspiration behind Project 2020. In a perfect world, I would become an executive director of Project 2020 and this would be my primary full-time job. It did not turn out that way but things work out for a reason.
2. How have you stayed involved in water polo since you retired as a player?
Since "retiring" as a water polo player I have been able to stay connected to the game in various ways. I now compete at the masters' level and that is so much fun! I have reconnected with past teammates and it keeps me young. I coach different levels of water polo. I coach beginners to the game at all ages. I realize that beginners are not always 10 and under and we do not often have a space for "older" beginners so I welcome all beginners at my club team. I coach at a school that is 6 -12 grade. This allows me to see the growth of these athletes on a 7-year journey.
I currently serve on the Board of Directors for USA water polo as an athlete rep. This is another way for me to give back to the sport by being a voice to the younger generations of players. I am also on the executive committee of UANA (America's version of FINA).
3. How do you use the lessons you learned as an athlete in your career? What skills/lessons did you gain as an athlete that serve you in your current positions?
One of the many lessons I learned as an athlete is how to embrace ambiguity. I am able to deal with unexpected situations without panicking. I am able to roll with it and adjust. I have found that to be very useful in my current job. Another skill I learned is collaboration. It is so important in the workforce. I am grateful that sports taught me how to work with others in high-pressure situations. It taught me to lead when needed and follow when others are better equipped to lead.
4. How does your long career as an athlete inform your ability to contribute to the various organizations you work with (FINA, USA Water Polo, etc.)?
Experience is key. I have so many lived experiences at different levels of competition. I have been through a few different rule changes. I have played overseas. I have seen different venues around the world and all of these experiences allow me a history to make future decisions better. I now understand the lenses that administrators think about when making decisions. As a player, it sometimes felt like the administrators had lost touch with the interest of the current players but now I know there are so many layers to consider.
5. How has your perspective on the sport changed since being involved in it as a coach/board member/etc.? What do you appreciate about the organization, administration, and governance of sport that you perhaps didn't focus on as an athlete?
Now that I am part of the “dark side” of our sport, I can now fully understand the challenges our sport faces in becoming a national sport and a professional sport. As an athlete, I never really trusted that all things necessary were being done. I now know that there are many layers that continue to be obstacles but I am hopeful that by continuing to be involved I can help us get closer to making our sport a national sport and growing our membership. I now fully understand the necessary tension between the USAWP dual mission of growing the sport and also supporting Olympic dreams and I appreciate all the work to make both happen.
I’m not sure how much my perspective has changed but what I have realized now in my new role is that my perspective on the importance of diversity is important and needed in this space. Growth and diversity can help our sport get to a place I always dreamed of as an athlete.