Olympic Water Polo Star Ashleigh Johnson Prioritizes Inspiration Over Medals, Wants To Empower Black Youth In Water Sport

For Olympian Ashleigh Johnson, her journey started with a simple desire: to put her mother’s mind at ease when she and her four siblings were near water. Over the course of her life, that desire would morph into a love of swimming, which eventually led to Johnson discovering the unique aquatic sport of water polo. Johnson, unlike her siblings, thrived at the goalkeeper position, her prowess led her to Princeton University where she eventually became the institution’s all-time saves leader and helped her squads compile 100 wins. 

As NBC News reports, Johnson made history in 2016, becoming the first Black athlete to make the United States Olympic team in the sport of water polo, which she led to a gold medal at the Summer Olympics in Rio. Four years later, in Tokyo, Johnson again helped the team win gold. Now, preparing for the Paris Olympic Games, Johnson is currently considered the best water polo goalkeeper in the world

Johnson told NBC News that what drives her is inspiration, not gold medals or individual accolades. “The longer that you play a sport, the less it becomes about you,” Johnson said. “I remember when I was young on this national team and just starting to find my footing, I didn’t understand why it was important for me to be here. But I understand now. As a Black woman of Caribbean descent in this sport, I definitely feel a special obligation to be a light for little Black and brown girls — and boys — who may be interested in swimming and water polo. That’s really special and is a priority for me.”

Johnson continued, “It’s so cool to see how inspiring the sport can be,” Johnson said. “These kids sometimes share their experiences, their struggles, and the chances are I’ve been through something like they have been and [I’m] able to give them some words of encouragement. We’re all unique in some way, but we’re all so similar in other ways. And getting to have these experiences with the kids makes us all really strong.”

Her mother, Donna Johnson, is similarly less impressed with the medals her daughter has won, and is more impressed by the person her daughter has grown into, telling NBC News, “I didn’t even know what water polo was, I had these horrible nightmares and daymares of them falling into the pool and them all trying to save each other, but all drowning together. And for Ashleigh, I am very happy that playing the sport has helped her grow into someone who loves to inspire kids.”

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