Johnson embracing role as trailblazer in U.S. water polo to make sport more accessible, diverse

Ashleigh Johnson is widely regarded as the best water polo goalkeeper in the sport. 

At 29 years old, she already has won two Olympic gold medals and has a World Aquatics Championship title stashed in her trophy cabinet. 

Just like most professional athletes, Johnson practices her craft every day. To her, however, the credit of being one of the world’s best goalkeepers comes down to the effort put in during each game by her teammates.

“I think that the fact that our team is one of the best in the world, it really shines a light on the individual members of our team,” Johnson said. “I recognize that [being the best at my position] is an individual recognition, but it's also a reflection of the greatness of the people who I played with." 

“I'm really grateful to be on Team USA and be able to play with the best players in the world. When you're a part of the best team, you get opportunities to be recognized as the best in your position.”

Having the platform and recognition as one of the best players in the sport, Johnson admitted she also has a responsibility to make an impact away from the swimming pool.

Focus is on bringing more diversity to U.S. water polo

At the 2016 Rio Olympics, Johnson became the first African-American woman to make the U.S. Olympic water polo team, helping her team win gold. 

She continued to be a force on the team by helping the U.S. win gold again at the 2020 Games, a streak that is currently at three consecutive gold medals in the women's water polo Olympic tournament. 

Heading into her third Olympic Games, Johnson is projected to be the only Black player on the team again – and it’s not an issue for Johnson, but it’s something that she said must be addressed within the sport to make it more diverse. 

“I think in general, this still is a predominantly white sport and there are still those barriers that have not gone away," Johnson said. "Having a kind of role modeling is huge, like getting that equal representation, changing the narrative about who belongs here and who doesn't. That's progress that we still need to make and hopefully will be made in the future."

“I know that there are people who are actively working to change the story, change the narrative. So it's a little progress, but over time [things will change].”

Johnson also added that having access to a pool is another barrier the sport faces to bring in more diversity, especially in areas where the population of low-income and minority families is high. 

However, there is progress being made. The Miami, Florida native maintains that it may not be reflected at the Olympic level of the sport, but that the youth ranks are where the changes are noticeable. 

“Looking at the youth level of our sport, it's the level of young black goalies [that is increasing] and when you're an example in that position, it has made me really proud,” Johnson said. “I don't think that the diversity on the Olympic team is going to change as quickly as the youth level of our sport. So when I think about progress, I think about it starting at the youth level, where you build the sport, where you build skills, and then seeing how that trickles to the club level, and then the college level and eventually the Olympic level."

The U.S. men’s team is also projected only to have one Black player on its Olympic roster. Max Irving has been with the national team since 2017 and competed at the 2020 Tokyo Games.

For Johnson, having a Black athlete on the men’s and women’s teams can lead to better outcomes. 

“I know that the people within the organization are working on the sport as a whole,” Johnson said. “Hopefully the effect is ubiquitous. We have a few more years to see that progress, but I think it's happening."

“We still have so much more, so many more people to get into our sport, but I'm proud of the progress that's been made so far. I hope that myself being here can continue to open up space, continue to change the narrative and bring in more people who look like me.”

Making an impact away from the pool

The 29-year-old spends time teaching swimming to kids in underserved communities and helps promote equity and equality in education. 

“That part of my journey has been really rewarding, being able to take those skills and knowledge that I’ve gained through the sport and give that to the kids so they can swim comfortably and feel safe,” she said. “All of these kids I talk to have their whole lives ahead of them and it’s important to let them know that I was someone who pursued my dreams and they can do the same thing."

“It opens up the opportunity for those kids to have a little bit bigger dreams and see themselves in different places.”

Johnson said she plans to continue talking to kids when her schedule becomes more open following the Paris Games. 

Preparations for the 2024 Paris Olympics

After winning the title at the 2024 World Aquatics Championship, the U.S. gained some much-needed momentum to keep its hopes of winning another Olympic gold medal for the fourth consecutive time. 

Johnson said morale within the team is high but knows the women’s competition in the sport has increased, especially after facing close contests in the knockout stages of the tournament. 

“The tournament win gave us a lot of confidence, but it also let us know that other teams are ramping up and they're ready to go,” Johnson said. “They're just going to get even better from here, so there's a lot of work that we need to put in to get to where we actually want to go and put us in a good position to reach our ultimate goal, which is to win gold.”

Johnson is now one of the veterans on the team — and it’s something she embraces. 

“I just try to bring my experience playing in this sport every day and into every competition and to this team. I’ll help give that to our young ones so that they're prepared for the competitive moments and just help everyone get to their individual goals so that we can reach our team goals.”

With the playing field leveling out in women’s water polo, Johnson believes the 2024 Paris Olympics will be the toughest one she’ll play in so far. Winning a fourth Olympic gold medal is far easier said than done, and the U.S. goalkeeper said there is pressure on the team to succeed in Paris for multiple reasons. 

“I think that the history of the program definitely adds a layer of pressure to the team in general, but at the same time, we’re a new team and this group of women has never achieved an Olympic goal together,” Johnson said. “That makes this journey unique and special. It's a fresh slate, we got to do what we got to do. We want to honor the women who have come before us, honor the program's history and also make our own unique mark and set the tone for the future.”

The water polo tournament will take place at the 2024 Paris Olympics between Aug. 5 and 11 at the Paris La Défense Arena in Nanterre, with 10 teams competing for the women and 12 teams competing for the men.