Brenda Villa has an impressive Olympic souvenir collection. Three games, three medals.
None of them, however, are gold.
The captain of the U.S. women's water polo team is out to change that in London. She's headed to the last Olympics of a career that has made her the most decorated athlete in her sport.
Villa and her teammates have come close to winning Olympic gold during the last 12 years. They took silver at the 2000 Sydney Games, bronze four years later in Athens, and silver again in Beijing. The two runner-up finishes were one-goal defeats.
"I'd be lying if I said I didn't want that," she said of the long-sought gold. "It would be the frosting on the cake."
Villa doesn't just want the gold for herself. She thinks it would help propel her sport from its also-ran status into the national spotlight and hopefully on a par with basketball, soccer and volleyball.
"I remember watching the 1996 Olympics where all these women team sports all won their medals and their sports just blew up," she said recently. "These past three Olympics, it's like, would we have blown up if we had won a gold medal?"
Since Beijing, the American women have been playing under coach Adam Krikorian and been winning consistently. They won the FINA World League Super Final and the world championships in 2009. They repeated as Super Final champions in 2010 and 2011, won the 2010 World Cup, and took gold at last year's Pan American Games. Their only stumble was a sixth-place finish at last year's world championships in Shanghai.
Still, for all of Villa's achievements she is rarely recognized outside a pool, unless she's in her hometown of Commerce, Calif. Her parents still live in the Mexican-American suburb of Los Angeles, where Villa followed her older brother into the sport at age 8.
"I go to my hometown all the time and it's awesome," she said. "Everybody knows who you are."
Her frustration about the lack of recognition sets in "only because I want my sport to be a national sport. I want water polo in every city and every state."
Villa plans to retire from playing water polo after London, but she's hardly leaving the sport. The daughter of Mexican immigrants wants to introduce it to the Hispanic community.
She co-founded "Project 20/20" with the goal of giving lower-income kids a chance to learn to swim and play water polo, and possibly make it to the 2020 Summer Games.
"They won't all become Olympians, but if that gets them into a team sport that teaches so much it will be nice," she said.
Villa will coach full-time at Castilleja School in Palo Alto, Calif., not far from where she attended college at Stanford. At 32, after years of travelling the world to play in tournaments, she plans to spend more time with her boyfriend of four years.
"Now my mom asks me about grandchildren every other month," she said, laughing. "I do want a family so it's something that does bear into the decision of walking away from the sport."
Teammate Heather Petri has watched Villa evolve over their years together on the national team. Petri, who at 34 is the oldest player on the team, and Villa are the only American players who have earned three Olympic medals.
"I look at her sometimes in the water and I don't even need to know what she's going to do, I know where to put the ball for her," Petri said. "That's why I love playing with her because we kind of have that little mental connection that you can only get from playing 13 years together."
At the pool or rooming with Petri, Villa used to be all-business.
"She can tell you a thousand things about each game, who was in the play," Petri said. "It was always like that in the beginning and you never got inside. Now I get to see the inside, I get to see the smile. That makes it more special."
Leave it to Petri to dish a little on Villa's romantic life.
"I was there when that started," she said, smiling. "They were high school sweethearts. He was in the service, and then they reconnected four years ago."
Petri looked up to Villa when they first met and that hasn't changed.
"Her skills in the water and her knowledge of the game is incredible," she said. "She uses her brain so much now. It's not just instinct happening. It's 'I'm going to do this. I'm also going to get my teammate open and make two other options for two other people.' That makes her such a powerful player."
Maggie Steffens, a 19-year-old who is the youngest member of the team, idolized both Villa and Petri before joining them. She will follow Villa's path to Stanford in the fall.
"I talk to Brenda a lot and she helps me get through tough moments and good moments," Steffens said. "We have a love for each other and that's what's going to get us through and hopefully a gold medal at the end."
Villa and Petri like to share their stories and memories with younger teammates, who like Steffens and her older sister Jessica, are eager to soak up their knowledge.
"It's kind of trying to speed up their experience, so mentally at least they can kind of gain some experience even if they haven't played that many games," Villa said.
Knowing she won't compete in another Olympics nearly alleviates any pressure Villa might be feeling to win that elusive gold.
"There's almost a peace to knowing that it's the last one and that's it," she said. "You don't want any regrets."