Perhaps the greatest water polo goalkeeper of all time, Ashleigh Johnson of Team USA, spoke with FanSided.
Team USA’s water polo goalkeeper Ashleigh Johnson is a reading enthusiast.
It’s only fitting that her favorite book is “The Alchemist,” a novel by Paulo Coelho about “journeys.” And as Johnson put it, “it kind of aligns with me in my life right now.”
On the road to becoming the first Black woman to represent Team USA in water polo and a four-time recipient of the Women’s Water Polo Player of the Year by Swimming World Magazine, calling her career a journey almost sounds like an understatement. But she’s on a mission to leverage her career into something bigger, to inspire others to think beyond their limitations. Her quest began as a kid in Miami doing bellyflop contests with her siblings in her family’s backyard pool, to ending up on a Team USA mural campaign from Secret in New York City, Philadelphia and Atlanta.
Secret’s mural for their “Just #WatchMe” initiative includes Team USA icons Alex Morgan, Oksana Masters, Chelsea Wolfe, Chiney Ogwumike and in the top left corner there’s Johnson.
“The ‘Watch Me’ campaign is helping young girls stay in sport and it’s providing the resources and representation that I wish I had when I was a young girl in sport,” Johnson said. “Me being in that top left corner is just a representation of the power of companies lending their support … providing platforms for athletes like me, women like me, and women of color like me, to show their excellence and create those pathways to opportunities that young girls in sport deserve.”
The athlete named “Top Goalkeeper” in the 2021 FINA World League Super Final cited the fact that young girls are twice as likely to drop out of sports. When she acknowledged the challenges in her own journey in athletics there was one that stood out: “Not having anyone who looked liked me in this sport at the elite level.”
There were also the stereotypes associated with Black people and water, which she didn’t know of until she left home and joined the swim team. It was then she realized how rare it was to spot people of color in aquatic sports. However, she didn’t let this deter and cited her support system — her mother Donna Johnson and water polo club coach Carroll Vaughan — for pushing her to continue excelling in the sport she loved. After she joined Team USA, she learned that continuing to play the sport was bigger than her.
“I want other young Black girls to develop that passion and love for how they move through the water, how water feels on their skin and not be influenced by or deterred by that stereotype that Black people don’t belong,” in the water, Johnson said.
While this wasn’t her intention when she started water polo, she added this responsibility when she took notice that she was becoming a household name and receiving DM’s from people of color about how she impacted them. Johnson researched the history of Black people that came before her in aquatic sports as well as the lack of access to aquatics. Her mentors Genai Kerr and Omar Amr, two athletes of color who competed on the 2004 Men’s Olympic water polo team in Athens, showed Johnson what was possible with their excellence in the pool, Johnson said.
“Understanding the thing that made me different — the color of my skin, where I was from, those things made me more powerful, more stronger and those were kind of my super power. Those are things that empower me to be myself,” Johnson said.
Now that she’s in the position where she’s an active elite athlete, she takes her spotlight in stride.
I’m “playing for all of the little girls or little boys who look up to me and see that I’m a mirror… I’m reflecting future them,” Johnson said.
Getting the call to join Team USA for the Olympics
Before joining Team USA Johnson was a student-athlete at Princeton University. This was a school she decided to enroll at because of her desire to “prioritize balance” in her life by pursuing both higher education and water polo at a high level.
The psychology major definitely had balance down, becoming a campus legend as the all-time leader in wins (100) and saves (1,362). The athlete, who was ultimately named the Collegiate Water Polo Association’s Defensive Player of the Week 19 times, received a call to join Team USA’s water polo squad in the middle of her college experience.
Johnson admits she was at first hesitant to join the squad because water polo was a hobby for her and prior to Team USA’s expressed interest in adding her, it wasn’t something she initially envisioned. However, she decided to join and came in with the mission to grow as an athlete. She did more than just grow and became a sensation as the top goalkeeper at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, helping Team USA’s water polo squad secure its second consecutive gold medal. This was all on top of being the first Black woman to represent Team USA in her sport.
“That environment will tell you how hard it is to compete at this level, to be engaged in this level; but it’s so rewarding,” she revealed.
Ever since she made the decision she credits her mindset of “staying in the moment” to her success. The 2019 FINA World Championships MVP explained that playing for Team USA consists of spending six-and-a-half hours training in addition to team activities.
“It’s either work, rest, recovery,” Johnson said. “There’s no space for the distractions of thinking too far in the future or being stuck in the past.”
Ashleigh Johnson knows the challenges of Olympic season in a pandemic
With Team USA’s women’s water polo going for their third consecutive gold medal at the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo, this may be the toughest feat for the team yet. This squad is playing during a pandemic and a year later, after the Olympics were postponed.
“A year-and-half ago we thought we were at our peak as a team,” Johnson said. “Looking at my teammates, we’ve all grown in some really incredible ways the past year-and-a-half … it’s shown in the past few games but we’re not even close to where we can be at.”
Team USA is 17-0 this season and will open up the Olympics with their scheduled game against Japan on July 23. And while staying in the moment is always Johnson’s motto, this even translates to her responses on media day. Such as her perfect on the spot response to a hypothetical question this author asked, in regards to who she would want to play her in a movie if there was an Ashleigh Johnson biopic in the works. Without hesitation, her answer was “Lupita Nyong’o.”
A scholar, a leader, the world’s greatest water polo goalkeeper and it looks like if she wanted to she could probably add casting director to her resume. Is there anything Ashleigh Johnson can’t do?