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US water polo captain Villa at home in Mexico

Mexico's Karla Schleske competes during the athletics women's 100m hurdles heat at the Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2011. Mexico's Karla Schleske competes during the athletics women's 100m hurdles heat at the Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2011. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)
By Chris Lehourites
AP Sports Writer / October 25, 2011

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GUADALAJARA, Mexico—Not all the gringos in Guadalajara are getting booed at the Pan American Games.

One, in fact, is practically a star south of the border.

Brenda Villa, the captain of the defending champion U.S. women's water polo team, has roots in western Mexico and her fluency in Spanish is making her the object of much attention at the games.

"A lot of the workers, a lot of people say, "Oh, you speak Spanish. Oh, your parents are from down here,'" Villa said. "It's fun. I'm trying to win over as many fans as possible so everyone can cheer for us at the end."

That's just outside the swimming pool. In the water, Villa has led the U.S. team into the semifinals after three straight routs in the group stage -- the latest being Tuesday's 19-3 win over Cuba.

The United States won four more gold medals on Day 11 of the Pan American Games, two in fencing and two in bowling. The baseball team had a chance for another, but lost to Canada 2-1 in the final.

The Americans gave up a pair of runs in the top of the sixth inning after leading 1-0 in the first.

The women's water polo team, however, is playing for more than just a gold medal in Guadalajara. The Pan American champions also earn a qualifying spot at next year's London Olympics.

"It's been our goal to come here, play well and get that Olympic berth early," said the 31-year-old Villa, who already owns two Olympic silver medals and one bronze. "It's not going to be easy. It's something we're going to have to go out and earn."

The Americans opened with a 20-0 win over Argentina. The team then beat Puerto Rico 24-4. Up next is Brazil in Wednesday's semifinals, and then a possible matchup against Canada for gold on Friday.

"They're a team that has a lot of heart and plays with a lot of spirit," Villa said of the Brazilians. "We're just excited to keep going and get that Olympic berth."

She's also thrilled about getting the chance to do it in Mexico.

Villa grew up in California and played water polo at Stanford. But her mother is from a town about an hour outside Guadalajara, in the same state of Jalisco. Her father is from a neighboring state.

Although she is a "gringa," a slang term in Mexico meaning foreigner, Villa couldn't wait to get back to her parents' homeland.

"Once I found out that the Pan American Games were in going to be in Guadalajara, I was excited," said Villa, who used to visit the country as a child. "I was hoping that a lot of my relatives that are still in Mexico could watch either in person or on TV, because the sport isn't that popular here."

Despite her Olympic medals and world titles in water polo, many members of her family are still a bit in the dark when it comes to the sport. But Villa said she is expecting some cousins and aunts and uncles to head to Guadalajara for the final couple of games.

And that's only given her more of a hometown boost.

"For me, it seems like I'm playing at home," said Villa, who took a year off from playing professionally in Italy and is expecting a monthlong vacation after the Pan American Games.

After that, it'll probably be time to start training for the London Games and that elusive Olympic gold medal.

"That's one of my goals," Villa said.

Not everyone will get a chance to play at the Olympics, however, so the Pan American Games serve as the highlight of multi-sport competitions. That is certainly the case in bowling, where Bill O'Neill and Chris Barnes won the men's doubles gold and Kelly Kulick and Liz Johnson won the women's doubles.

"It's the closest thing we're ever going to see to getting to the Olympics," Kulick said. "So for us it's an honor to represent our country and feel that we can represent our sport very well back in the States."

In fencing, Mariel Zagunis won the women's individual sabre. Alexander Massialas took gold in the men's individual foil.