Champion water polo player Ashleigh Johnson was a trailblazer – or more appropriately, a lane blazer – from the start.
Growing up swimming in Florida, she was often the only Black girl in the pool. This continued into her career at Princeton University, where she was one of very few Black players on the water polo team, and then into her Olympic career as well, when in 2016 she became the first Black woman to make a U.S. Olympic Women’s Water Polo Team.
Johnson, a goalkeeper, dominated her sport. When she graduated from Princeton, Johnson was the school’s all-time saves leader, had compiled 100 career victories, and had been named the Collegiate Water Polo Association’s Defensive Player of the Week 19 times. She then helped Team USA win the gold medal at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, becoming the first women’s water polo team to repeat as Olympic champions.
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“When I was younger, I got questions from other kids in the sport, parents, and even strangers, asking questions like, ‘Can Black people float?’ or ‘Black people don’t swim, how come you know how?’ ” Johnson said. “Questions like these and other similar things that weren’t as direct but meant the same thing and implied I didn’t belong, and people like me didn’t belong. That put a lot of pressure on me when I was younger to either act like race wasn’t something that was part of my reality or absolutely crush the expectations that people had for me.”
Johnson also committed herself to helping inspire other young swimmers and athletes as well. Alongside her sister, Chelsea, with whom she played at Princeton, Johnson ran a swim school in Miami for two years. She is currently training to once again bring home the gold with Team USA later this year at the Tokyo Games.