From the Pan American Games to APU, Milena Gúzman-Ortiz is achieving great things through a dedication to her craft

Milena Gúzman-Ortiz is beginning to become a household name, if only at Azusa Pacific. Ortiz is currently in her sophomore year at APU and is already a key player on the water polo team. Last year she was named an All-American and received honorable mention for All-Conference.

Gúzman started swimming at the young age of two-years-old. She explained that her parents have had a great impact on her life and she would not be where she is today if it were not for their support and guidance. 

Gúzman grew up in Aguas Buenas, Puerto Rico, with her two older brothers and parents. When she was four years old, her brothers were around nine and ten years old and they were swimmers, which led her to become interested in the sport. 

“I am really grateful for my mom because she pushed me,” Gúzman said. “She is a supermom … She drove me thirty minutes to all my practices and then my dad would work all day so I could swim.” 

They sacrificed a lot so Gúzman and her brothers could work toward what they love. As Gúzman grew up, she continued to pursue her swimming career, but at age ten, she began playing water polo. She kept her focus on swimming and played water polo on the side for fun.

In 2014, Gúzman made the Junior National team for swimming in the 800 and 400 meter freestyle and in both the 400 and 800 freestyle relays. A year later, she qualified for the same events and the 400 individual medley and competed for the Puerto Rican Junior National team in Barbados. During this same year, her water polo talents began to shine through. 

Upon returning from Barbados, right after her plane landed, she went straight to a water polo game. They invited her to keep practicing water polo in hopes of making the team that would go to the Junior Pan American games. She ended up making the team in 2016 and 2017.

“I didn’t expect to make it,” Gúzman said. “I loved the girls and it was fun for me … I also loved [the] coaches.” 

In the following year, Gúzman decided to stick with just water polo and stop swimming. She had to decide because The Federation made her choose one, she could not do both. 

“I really liked both… and I asked why are you making me choose?” she said.  “I was really bummed, but I chose water polo because my club water polo coach and my mom told me it was my decision, but they also told me how much potential I had in water polo and helped me narrow where my heart was more.”

Gúzman proceeded to make the 16 and under Puerto Rican water polo team. Soon after, some of her close friends moved out to California. 

“I had a big desire to make the national team and asked myself what can I do to make it, water polo in Puerto Rico is not that big and I needed to challenge myself,” she said. “My assistant coach told me I needed more game experience, so a coach from Spain reached out and asked me to join their academy.” 

Gúzman debated whether or not to go, but then she got word from a friend who moved out here and went to highschool in Costa Mesa, Calif. He pushed her to move to California as well. 

“I emailed the coach without telling anyone and I was so happy that the coach answered and that the coaches wanted to talk with me and my parents,” she said. “[That’s when I] started to get serious about it.” 

Gúzman’s coach from Puerto Rico had a connection with a coach in California and worked at the University of La Verne and at West Valley College. Her family could not leave Puerto Rico, so Gúzman took a leap of faith and moved out to Monte Bello where she lived with a host family up until coming to college. 

She went to Schurr High School for her junior and senior year and played club water polo in Commerce, Calif. Gúzman’s club coach encouraged her to make a list of possible colleges she was interested in and her coach would help her get there. Gúzman visited many schools, but the one school that intentionally contacted her and recruited her was APU. This was because APU’s assistant water polo coach, Sara Orozco, used to be a lifeguard in Commerce and remembered watching Gúzman play.

After visiting APU and meeting the team, Gúzman knew it was the right school. There was just one obstacle in her way. Before committing to any school, she wanted to talk to her parents and tell them about all that she was experiencing out here in California. During the time of early decisions, a hurricane was passing through her home in Puerto Rico. 

Gúzman said this was a very difficult time for her because she just wanted to talk with her parents but there was no way of getting in contact with them. Thankfully, the hurricane passed and she was able to call them. During this time, the APU coaches would check up on her and ask about her family. She saw that they really cared and that she belonged at APU.

The summer before coming to college, Gúzman made the national team where she competed at the Central American and Carribean Games in Columbia and again at the Junior Pan American Games in Florida. After reaching so many of her personal goals that summer, she was ready to begin her time at APU.

“I was really confident in what I was doing and [also] my team. I learned a lot and without my team, it all wouldn’t be possible,” she said.

Last summer, Gúzman played in the Pan American Games in Lima, Peru where she was the youngest on the team at 19-years-old. All eyes were on Gúzman when her team played against Mexico.

“[I thought] oh my gosh, oh my gosh, I am so scared of penalties. It’s my biggest fear because it is a lot of pressure,” she said. “I was the last to shoot and so I started to cry because I was so nervous. It all came down to my shot. My team was so supportive, so I just shot it and when I made it, I started to break down.” 

Gúzman was relieved after the game. 

“My coach hugged me and told me ‘I trust you’ and it taught me that people see stuff in us that we cannot see about ourselves, so trust your coaches and those around you,” she said. “It was a great feeling.”

Gúzman spoke about how it means to her to compete wearing her country’s flag on her chest.

“I don’t get paid,” she said. “I do it out of love for my country and love for the game. When the Puerto Rican national anthem comes on, it makes me cry because I cannot express the feeling of playing for your country. If they ask me to play even when I am 30 years old, I would in a heartbeat.” 

As for what’s to come, there are no championships this coming summer because of the 2020 Olympic games.

“I just want to continue to improve in every aspect and achieve great things,” she said.