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TOKYO — Arguably the pound-for-pound best American athlete at these Olympic Games plays one of those sports the vast majority of us only pay attention to once every four summers.
She is 6-foot-1, treads water for over 30 minutes at a time, and is so powerful she can get most of her body out of the water without jumping off the bottom of the pool.
And she’s a pioneer, with an engaging personality and radiant smile, to boot.
Ashleigh Johnson is the goalkeeper for the U.S. women’s water polo team, considered by those who know the sport the best on the planet between the pipes. The American women are currently on a seven-year streak of dominance, entering Tokyo as the two-time defending gold medalists and winning every major international event since 2014.
Johnson has been in goal for a significant chunk of it.
In 2016, when she was named to her first Olympic team, she became the first Black woman to represent the United States in the sport at the Games.
She is set on getting more girls and boys that look like her into water polo and helping to end the shameful lack of Black Americans in aquatic sports.
“I continue to make that my mission, I continue to try to clear a pathway for the next one of me and I’m always going out there and challenging young girls, challenging young boys to come be here, come play against me, come play with us, because there’s so much opportunity in our sport,” Johnson said on Monday at the Tatsumi Water Polo Centre, after making 7-of-14 saves in her team’s 12-7 win over China.
Ashleigh Johnson's path to best goalie on Earth (or water)
A Miami native, Johnson is the middle of five children born to Jamaican immigrant parents. Her mother put all of them into a swimming program when they were kids. Johnson’s oldest brother, Blake, was first to join the water polo games, though his siblings soon followed.
Ashleigh didn’t take long to distinguish herself as special. American head coach Adam Krikorian said Monday he first learned of Johnson when she was in middle school and one of his assistants at UCLA ran a camp in Miami. She messaged him that he needed to recruit Johnson to the Bruins because Johnson would become one of the best goalies in the world.
But the path it took to get to this point, for Johnson to be a two-time Olympian and one of the most decorated goalies in her sport, was not easy.
“There were many times I didn’t want to continue in the sport, there were times where I felt like my race, my skin made me different and I was too different, like I didn’t belong here,” she said.
Johnson said the encouragement of her support system and mentors in the sport helped keep her going. She and her sister Chelsea played together growing up, going on to Princeton. But Johnson readily recalls a game when they were kids when one opponent shook everyone’s hands and said “good game” — until getting to Ashleigh and Chelsea, when they said “Black game.”
The young girls shrugged at the time, unaware of the malice. Johnson still hears racist comments when she plays international matches, from opponents who don’t have the language to do it “subversively” as she says, and are just up front with their racism. She can navigate those moments better now than when she was a kid.
Not that she should have to at all.
Like so many Black Americans, particularly those who are the only or the first or maybe both in their chosen field, Johnson has had a lot of conversations with teammates and coaches over the last 14 months or so since George Floyd was murdered and what it’s really like to look like Johnson and walk through life.
Krikorian said for someone like him, it’s less a conversation and more listening and asking questions.
“Certainly in some respects it’s been eye-opening and in some respects I’m not surprised too,” Krikorian said. “She’s got a unique ability to have that discussion and that conversation and keep it very calm, and I think that’s a skill that’s so important in these days, in which the emotion is heightened ... but Ashleigh’s one of the best at making it simple and having a very mature conversation, and that has helped us understand, gain that perspective and grow in our own thoughts and mindset.”
How Johnson uses history to torpedo 'Blacks don't swim' stereotype
Getting that kind of attention, or leading those kinds of talks, isn’t always easy and doesn’t come naturally to everyone. They can also be exhausting for the Black person who is often facilitating them.
Johnson admits it was a learning experience for her. But history helped strengthen her desire to do it all.
“Part of my learning was understanding the history of aquatics and exclusion for people of color, especially in the U.S.,” she said. “Understanding the narrative of 'Black people don’t swim.’
“I had to understand where it came from, why it persists, in order to break through it and tell people that they should be here, and I also had to take a step back and realize how grateful I am to be here, because there’s a lot that’s scary about being alone here and being the only one and also the weight of representation.”
That history is one that was meant to exclude Black Americans, but cost white Americans as well. Thanks to the New Deal, there were nearly 2,000 resort-style public pools built in the United States in the 1930s, '40s and '50s. They were all segregated.
When Black residents demanded they be able to use the pools their tax dollars were helping to fund, and the courts agreed, many cities decided to just drain the pools. Faced with having to integrate the pools, they closed them instead.
That history, of having public pools off-limits for generations and private pool clubs both too expensive and segregated, means that decades later too few Black people know how to swim, and Black children are five times more likely to drown in a pool than white children.
And that history helps Johnson push forward.
“[It was] especially more lonely when I was younger,” Johnson said, “before I understood being different was my strength, and then now it can be lonely because I’m always speaking on this and I feel like I’m representing a lot more than just myself and that feels like a lot of responsibility.
“But I understand that I don’t really have to do much other than do what I’ve been doing and just being here and being a mirror for young boys and girls who look like me to see themselves in, but also I welcome that responsibility. It’s a privilege to stand here and represent so many people and be the pathway that people can follow, be someone that people can follow and find the opportunity that I have and the success that I have.”
Becoming the next best water polo goalie on the planet (and hopefully two-time Olympic gold medalist) is a tall task, but Johnson is hoping by just seeing her, a wave of Black children will try.
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