Rio 2016: Athletes can use Olympic experience to create gold for their sport, community

America’s Latino athletes were well represented in Rio this year, and if they are looking to give back to their community or their sport, they may want to keep in mind a short water polo player of Mexican descent.

From the London podium on which she received her 2012 Olympic water polo gold medal, Brenda Villa could see – at least in her mind’s eye – the indoor pool in the City of Commerce, California, more than 5,000 miles away.

It was the place Villa — a four-time Olympian — began her training, and it helped her become the most decorated athlete in the history of women’s water polo.

It was not just the fact the City of Commerce had a public swimming facility, Villa told Fox News Latino during the Rio Games. Without “the vision of the city to invest in their residents by offering low cost swim lessons and free youth sports,” she said, “I would not have become an Olympic water polo player.”

For those of limited means, the barriers to entry into water sports are access to pools and the ongoing costs of participation. “The City of Commerce eliminated both of those,” she said.

And now Villa herself is working to train others who hope to take podium at a future Olympics.

The most notable Latino athlete in Rio this year may be gold- and silver-medal winning gymnast Laurie Hernandez. But there were many more, including swimmer Maya DiRado, who took home two golds, a silver and a bronze; men’s water polo team captain Tony Azevedo who won bronze; as well as synchronized swimmer Anita Alvarez and 1,500-meter runner Brenda Martinez. Sarah Robles broke a 16-year medal drought for Team USA in weightlifting with a bronze.

A number of them have the impulse to give back to their sports and their communities. Robles, for example, has spoken out on body issues and indicated a desire to help young Latinos and Latinas compete at the Olympic level.

In addition to starting Big Bear Track Club, a 501(c)(3) non-profit dedicated to providing elite training to athletes who otherwise lack the access, Martinez donates running shoes to the high school cross-country teams.

The story is similar for Villa’s 2008 Olympic silver-medal winning teammate, Patty Cardenas. Now the assistant coach of the Commerce Aquatics women’s water polo team, she’s helping the next generation through the very program that helped her and Villa become Olympians.

The impact of the Commerce Aquatic program went far beyond just Villa and Cardenas.

“All of the City of Commerce was impacted,” Villa told FNL. “Most of the girls that come from my club team go on and play for D1 schools.”

Cardenas is there to help make sure that continues. And with the Commerce Aquatics program already in full swing Villa looked to her new neighborhood to make a difference.

Project 2020, Villa’s non-profit organization, which works with low-income residents of East Palo Alto, which has a Hispanic population of more than 60 percent, was modeled on the Commerce program.

The project is run out of a pool in nearby Menlo Park because East Palo Alto doesn’t have its own. But Villa is hoping that gold will follow anyway.

“I don't want my story or my city’s story to be an anomaly,” Villa told FNL.