Feature story: Olympic outreach

Olympic gold-medal winner is drawing Belle Haven girls and families into aquatic sports

By Emma Marsano, Special to the Almanac

Not many kids can say that their water polo coach is a four-time Olympic medalist. But at Menlo Park's Belle Haven Pool, members of the new girls' water polo teams can.

Since February, gold-medal winner Brenda Villa has been head of acquatic outreach for Menlo Swim and Sport, which runs swimming programs at Menlo Park's two community pools, Belle Haven and Burgess. Now, she's also head of the Mavericks Youth Water Polo program.

Her success in the realm of women's water polo is essentially unmatched. She attended Stanford University on a water polo scholarship, and since graduating she's won 15 gold medals in international competitions from the Pan American Games to the Water Polo World Championships to the Olympics.

"Having Brenda Villa coaching water polo at Belle Haven is the same as having Michael Jordan coaching basketball at Belle Haven," says Tim Sheeper, executive director and head coach at Menlo Swim and Sport."

After captaining the women's water polo team to Olympic gold in London last year, Villa retired from competitive play to focus on her outreach work in communities like Belle Haven.

She spoke with Belle Haven students about the importance of learning to swim and about her passion for water polo. In March, she gave a water polo demonstration to students from Beechwood School and Belle Haven Elementary School, using Belle Haven Pool.

Her passion for inspiring students to get involved with aquatic sports comes from her own childhood. Her parents emigrated from Mexico, and Villa was raised in Commerce, California, a town in southeast Los Angeles County.

"I grew up in an area kind of like (Belle Haven)," she says. Her town sponsored swim teams and water polo teams, and "that's what got me to Stanford and to four Olympic games."

From first-hand experience, she says, she has seen the positive influence that team sports can have on girls. "I am using my personal life experience to connect with the girls."

In addition to encouraging more kids to participate in aquatic programs, Villa has established water polo teams for U12 and U14 girls at Belle Haven Pool. The two teams practice together three days a week.

When they began practicing in April, Villa's teams were an extension of the Menlo Mavericks Youth Water Polo program that already existed at Burgess Pool, and comprised mostly girls from the two elementary schools who had attended Villa's demonstration in March.

But in early October, Menlo Swim and Sport split the coed Menlo Mavericks Youth Water Polo team that practiced at Burgess Pool into a girls' group and a boys' group. Now, all of the Menlo Mavericks' girls practice at Belle Haven Pool, while the boys remain at Burgess.

Having merged the Burgess and Belle Haven girls teams, Menlo Swim and Sport hopes to grow the youth water polo program by taking advantage of Belle Haven Pool. "We have more space here," says Villa. "Hopefully, at some point, we can have all Mavericks water polo here."

Parents and players alike have reacted well to this change. One mother attributes her daughter's renewed enthusiasm for water polo to the move to Belle Haven and the chance to play under Brenda Villa.

"Brenda is such a good example," says the mother, who notes that her family lives very close to Burgess Pool, but it's worth the drive through late-afternoon traffic to get her daughter to practices she's genuinely excited about.

During practice, Villa paces along the side of the pool, shouting instructions, encouraging the girls by name, and coaching the teams through warm-ups, drills and scrimmages.

Sometimes she stops and stands perfectly balanced with her feet hanging over the edge of the pool, getting as close to the water as possible without falling in.

One mother, a resident of East Palo Alto whose twins are on the team, remembers the effect of Villa's demonstration in March. "The girls came home, and they were so excited about Brenda." She laughs, noting that she hadn't heard of Villa before. "We said, who's Brenda? And looked her up online and ... wow."

Now that her girls have been practicing with the team for months, she says Villa is "a really good example for my girls" and a reminder that "we all need to keep pushing ourselves."

She's noticed that her daughters are now determined to finish their homework as soon as they come home from school, so that they can be ready for water polo practices.

Another mother, a member of the Belle Haven community, attempts to put Villa's work into context. "We've never had anything like this," she says. "I've been in the community around 35 years, so it's exciting to see something different. My daughter couldn't even swim a length when she started, and now. ..." She gestures at the girls in the water, each holding a water polo ball above her head and treading water as Villa counts down the last few seconds of the drill on the poolside clock. "I can't tear her away from it," she says.

Recently, the water polo program at Belle Haven partnered with Beyond Barriers Athletic Foundation to subsidize the monthly team fees for girls from low-income families, as part of Villa's vision of making aquatic sports accessible to all kids in Belle Haven and beyond. "I can't pay for two girls to play water polo," says the mother who hadn't heard of Villa before March. "Brenda's helping me with one of the twins."

Despite the success that Villa's teams have already had, there are more hurdles to overcome. Transportation, for instance.

"Transportation is usually a huge obstacle, especially in households where both parents work and child care is not easily attainable," Villa says. " It takes a village to help make everything work."

Her outreach work has inspired parents to get involved. "The beauty of having the local community join local teams is that half the parents can walk their kids to practice," Villa says.

Villa remembers the teams' early days, when almost every parent on the team would crowd the pool deck for full practices, eager to ensure that their girls were comfortable and happy in the water. Now, though, fewer parents stay for the whole practice. "It's like they trust me more," Villa says.

But, she says, parents are still just as invested in the teams as they have been from the start. The teams have had only a few scrimmages so far, but Villa says everyone gets excited on game day.

At the games, she says, chuckling: "I have to tell (the parents), you know, you can't stand behind the goal, cheering. Because a lot of them, they don't know the rules; it's just exciting to see that their girls can do this."

It's also worth emphasizing that the teams Villa currently coaches are girls' teams. While she is adamant that her long-term goal is to create opportunities for all local youth, she notes that her focus on creating opportunities for girls is intentional.

"I believe girls do not always get the fair share of opportunities in sports," she says.

One mother expresses her appreciation of Villa's attention to this issue as she holds up a towel for her shivering daughter at the end of practice. "It's nice, because now girls can have a sport to play, not just boys."

Having dried off and wrapped herself up against the chilly breeze, her daughter chimes in: "I like water polo because I like to swim and be in the water." With a mischievous smile she adds, "I also like to compete."

Going forward, Villa hopes to expand the water polo program she's started at Belle Haven, so that the girls she coaches can have the opportunity to play for their high school teams and continue to advance in the sport. For now, the teams are still in what Villa terms a "developmental league," and practices aren't too grueling. But, the practice schedule is up to three days a week from two, and Villa's booming and forceful coaching voice lets everyone know that she means business.

"I like Brenda," one player confides. "She's really nice. But she also gives you a lot more practice, like she teaches you a lot more, than before (when we played at Burgess)."

Villa's aspirations for Belle Haven Pool are quickly converging with reality. Menlo Swim and Sport recently finalized a partnership that builds on its existing relationship with the Beyond Barriers Athletic Foundation and also involves Facebook and the city of Menlo Park. Together, the four entities will be able to keep Belle Haven Pool open year-round, rather than just during the summer. The hope is that extended hours will facilitate the transformation of the pool from an underused facility to a fixture of the Belle Haven community.

It's difficult to measure the impact that an athlete as decorated and as passionate as Brenda Villa can have on a community. One team parent put it very simply: "She's an example for the community, for everybody. She shows us that we can do it. ... No excuses."

Visit for more information on Belle Haven Pool and its programs.

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Like this comment
Posted by Long Time Resident
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Dec 5, 2013 at 3:16 pm

What a great story. This can change kid's lives. Leave it to Tim Sheeper to find a way. He is a local treasure.

Let us never forget that Kelly Fergussen and Andy Cohen and then Rich Cline opposed hiring him.

They gave him a very hard time renewing his contract too.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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