In the Southern California city of Commerce, water polo isn’t just a sport. It’s a culture, and for some, it’s a way of life.
It was this mentality that inspired LMU senior goalie and Commerce native Sky Flores to take up the game.
“[Commerce has] two Olympians who were born and bred there, learned how to play water polo there,” she said. “So water polo’s actually a really big sport within my community.”
But to simply mention the two Olympians glosses over the fact that one of them is Brenda Villa, the most decorated women’s water polo player of all time. She and Flores have a lot in common. Both grew up in Commerce. Both began playing water polo at eight. Both trained at the same pool, located in what is now called the Brenda Villa Aquatic Center. Flores grew up watching Villa play the game, and over time, Villa became her idol and one of her biggest inspirations.
“She really inspired me to just keep playing and just keep pursuing my dream of playing [Division I] water polo,” Flores said.
That dream was one that was always on her mind as she continued to develop her game, making her way through the youth and high school levels.
But she wasn’t just improving as a player. She was doing what she loved.
“I think I have a lot,” she said when asked about her favorite memories from her youth career. “A lot of my best memories are actually from water polo.”
This is not to say that it was always easy for her. Flores noted the grind of playing and the dedication needed to commit to the sport.
“[There are] times where you don’t want to go to practice,” she said. “You wake up, you’re like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to play water polo today.’ But I always just kept in mind my dream.”
And it all paid off. Her hard work and strong play over four years at Montebello High School earned her attention from Division I schools. Soon after, she was able to achieve that dream that Villa had motivated her to pursue.
When it came time to make her college decision, LMU won her over quickly.
“I met the team, and they’re just all amazing girls,” Flores said. “So it was definitely the school for me.”
But the potential for Flores to become a Lion was a seed that had been planted not on LMU's campus, but back in Commerce, when she would talk to former teammates who were now playing for the LMU team.
"They would always come back and just rave about how awesome LMU is," Flores said.
Flores was thrilled about the opportunity to play for the LMU program, and her college career got off to a fantastic start. She was thrown into the fire immediately, appearing in every single game her freshman year.
But she proved to be up to the challenge. She quickly turned into one of the best goalies in the Golden Coast Conference (GCC), earning All-GCC Honorable Mention honors and a spot on the GCC’s All-Freshman team. Her sophomore year saw similar success, as she led the conference in goals against average (minimum six games played) and was named All-GCC Honorable Mention once again.
Her junior year, however, was a step back. Fellow goalie Claire Wright, who plays for the Canadian national team, beat Flores out for the starting job. Flores appeared in just two games during the season as Wright finished near the top of the conference in saves, save percentage and goals against average.
While this was obviously disappointing for Flores, she took it as an opportunity to develop her character.
“I think that it built a lot of resilience within myself,” she said. “To just keep working and learn not only how to be the starting goalie, but also just learning how to sit on the bench and be a good teammate.”
The patience and willingness to accept her role has paid off this year. She is back in goal as the team’s primary netminder and is the backstop of a team currently ranked No. 13 in the nation by the Collegiate Water Polo Association. Her importance to that ranking is not lost on LMU’s head coach, Kyle Witt.
“To have a goalie of Sky’s talents is immense,” Witt said. “The goalie is always the backbone and the quarterback of your defense and Sky has met those qualities.”
With only a handful of games left before her senior year concludes, Flores is headed towards the end of her college career and she wants to make sure that the team finishes strong by working together.
“I think that we all play our best when we’re just this awesome, cohesive group of girls,” she said.
And that cohesiveness, that chemistry, that camaraderie within the team, is something that Flores will always remember about her time with the LMU program.
“I’ve built some of the strongest relationships that I’ve ever had in my life with the girls on my team,” Flores said. “I’m definitely grateful for all of them.”
Flores chased her water polo dreams and at LMU, she lived them out. It’s the kind of outcome that makes Commerce proud.