Picture by Getty Images

Ashleigh Johnson exclusive Q&A: "Whatever makes you unique gives you power" 

The Rio 2016 water polo gold medallist on what inspired her to become the best in the world, her hero Serena Williams, and how she is working to improve diversity in her sport.
By Andrew Binner

Ashleigh Johnson is known as the best water polo goalie in the world, and competes for a reason far greater than personal glory.

As the first African American woman to represent the USA, she plays for those that have been denied the chance to shine in the pool because of their skin colour. She also plays to inspire a new generation of players, who see someone that looks like them succeeding on the biggest stage of all.

But it wasn’t always that way for the former Princeton college star.

Even after Johnson helped her nation to Olympic gold at Rio 2016 with a staggering 51 saves, she still didn’t understand why she couldn’t ‘just be a water polo player’.

Ahead of the USA’s title defence at the Tokyo Olympics (in 2021), Olympics.com sat down with the 2019 World Player of the Year to find out what inspired her to become the best player in the world, why her perspective has now changed, and how she is trying to improve diversity in water polo.

OC: Where are you right now, and how is your form after the lockdown?

AJ: I'm in southern California right now, training's been going good, we're back in full time. We were shut down for a few months and then slowly got back into it with regular testing. A few of us are vaccinated now and things are just picking up. We haven't had a lot of travel, so I'm excited to see some other opponents. But everything's been pretty good. Our team has adjusted well. I feel that our city has adjusted well, and it's just really inspiring to see how people have adjusted to this time.

OC: How do you ensure that you stay sharp as a team and as an individual in the run up to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics?

AJ: Yeah, we've done a lot of inter-squad scrimmaging and it's been tough because tension builds up. Water polo is a physical sport, it's tough. You get really tired. You're always trying to win little battles. So the tensions have been rising on our team for a while and our coach has been getting on us. So mentally, we've been having to let it go every day, and then come back and re-engage. So it'll be nice to redirect that energy to another team when we're able to.

I feel pretty good. To compensate for not seeing opponents, I've been watching videos of different shooters, been trying to visualise different situations that I've been in before. While that might not reflect what I'm going to see, it's good preparation and it works for me to bring that into practise. I feel like I'm getting close to where I need to be, and it's just going to be that last push.

OC: Let’s take a trip down memory lane. Tell us a little bit about your upbringing, how you started playing water polo, and what kind of athlete you were.

AJ: I wasn't into sports at all! Now I'm into water polo, but I'm still not really a sports person. I grew up on a farm in a family of five kids and a pool in our backyard, so we learnt to swim out of necessity, as it’s a life-saving skill. My mom would leave home every day and think that we were going to drown. She called like 20 times throughout the day, and if we didn't pick up once, she would rush home and be like, is everyone OK? So we learnt to swim. And then as we got older, she put us into a swim programme, which happened to have water polo. So we got really lucky because we hated swimming. And water polo is just super fun, very engaging, very dynamic. And we could all play together, which is really cool. And it's something that we still do today. Whenever I go home, like there's always scrimmages going on with my club team and all of my siblings join in and it's just very, very fun.

OC: What was farm life like?

AJ: I loved it! I aspire to it now. Like, get me back to the farm!

It was just five acres and my parents are Jamaican, so they planted everything. We had avocado, tamarind, star fruit, mangoes. We had literally all the tropical fruits, and we were the ones who took care of it. Any Saturday or Sunday, you could see us mowing the lawn, picking weeds, pruning trees, doing all of those things. And we had a horse, but none of us knew how to take care of a horse. So all of us siblings got together and learnt how to wash her. Her name was Lonely because she was the only one. I know! But she was just so cute and so fun, and lived the life grazing on our farm.

OC: In what way did your upbringing, and all the varied experiences it involved, shape your life as a professional athlete?

AJ: I am very open to trying new things, and trying new experiences is a huge driver in my career. Like I said, I am not like a huge sports person, but I love watching specific players and players who innovate. I like watching the NCAA March Madness (college basketball) games, and getting to see how players are innovating, who's standing out, those kinds of things. It makes me think about how I could bring that kind of competitiveness to my team. So that's really cool to me.

Also, getting to play internationally has made me really open to languages, different types of food and new experiences. That’s a big part of who I am as a person. You see it echo through my personal life and through my athletic life.

OC: Which other athletes do you look up to?

AJ: I've always really admired Serena Williams. When I was young, I grew up in tandem with my sister, my sister’s a year and a half younger than me. We went to the same schools, played on the same teams, and in a predominantly white sport, people compared us to Serena and Venus. So we absorbed that and owned it. So we looked up to them, seeing how they competed against each other, how they supported each other, the role of their father in their sporting development, who Serena specifically is now with her brand, and now as business people, that's something that inspires me today. I also love her continued competitiveness and greatness at all different levels as a mother, as a young woman, seeing her mature through the years has been really inspiring.

OC: Like the Williams sisters, you and your siblings grew up playing a white-dominated sport. Were you ever made to feel like an outsider? When is the first time you ever encountered prejudice?

AJ: I wasn't unaware of how white the sport was when I was young as the team that I grew up with was pretty diverse and my race didn't feel like something that defined me. But once I left home and started going out to California for these to play... being from Miami, being black, speaking a different kind of water polo language, it really made me aware of all of the ways that I was different. As I started to get good at the sport and recognised for my potential, people started telling me, ‘You need to do all of this because there's no one else like you doing it.’ And it took me a long time to understand that there's no one else like you who's played at this level. It took me a long time to accept that responsibility, because there's a history of lack of access to aquatic opportunities within the black community that you don't really understand until you really put time into understanding. So I had to put in that time so that I could communicate and also represent on the level that everyone was already seeing me, but maybe didn't fully understand. 

The first time that I was really made aware of my race, or that someone might be viewing me as like the black girl before they viewed me as Ashleigh, was after a game that me and my sister were playing in when we first started playing. We had beaten this team quite comfortably and me and my sister made a huge difference. I'm a goalie and she attacks, so I was making passes to her and she was like turning people, and after the game we were shaking hands saying, “Good game, good game, good game,” and one player said, “Black game” just to us. And we're like, “What does that even mean? What are you trying to communicate to us?” But obviously he was singling us out because of our race. We told our coach and she got so angry, but we weren't even angry. We were just confused by it because we were so young, and that kid was also very young. But she spoke to the coach and talked it out and he was reprimanded. That kind of set the tone for understanding how people were seeing us in the context of this sport. We were just different and this was going to be a thing. Even if we were good, someone was going to say, “They're only doing that because they're black,” or maybe, “They shouldn't be here because they're black.” Our race was now part of the conversation.

OC: When being faced with comments like that, a lot of kids would shy away and not want to play anymore. What is it that made you choose to stick at it?

AJ: I definitely shied away. I wanted to fit in just like any other kid. Part of the reason why I've only in the past three years started understanding this context of black people in aquatics, is because I didn't understand why that was me. Why were people telling me this story that I had nothing to do with. I was like, “I just want to be here and play this sport and have fun. Why do I have to shoulder this responsibility of representing an entire race within our sport?” When I was younger, that responsibility was too heavy for me to carry. I didn't understand that. I didn't want it. I rejected it, but I kept playing and I kept doing me. Later, I realised when all of these kids started reaching out to me on Instagram, their parents talk to me on the pool deck, and we go to Amsterdam and there's one black girl there and she's like, “I want to be where you are.” That's something that's really powerful, seeing that girl and seeing young me and her seeing herself in me. That reflection, that's one of the reasons I decided to take responsibility for this and move forward. For the people that have been left behind in the past. I have the power to do that just by being here. But I’m also more empowered to do so if I understand. It took me a long time to get here, but I realised that there's no reason not to own it, and it enriches me, it helps young me, and it's the least I can do.”

OC: You were a star player on the Princeton water polo team, have won Olympic gold at Rio 2016, and have been named world player of the year. But despite this enormous success, you’ve still struggled with your identity as a water polo player at times. Can you elaborate on why that is?

AJ: When you grow up with people asking you why you are playing water polo or why you are swimming because you are black, those things plant seeds. And if you're planting the seeds, something's growing in me, growing in a young child who's constantly told that they shouldn't be here. They constantly feel like there's no one else who looks like them to support their reality. Sometimes the doubt still creeps in in different ways. 

I’ve got some really cool accolades, but I'm still human. I still train every day, work really hard to do all of this stuff and put in the time and effort. It’s not easy at this level, with all the different moving parts of a team. It's an ongoing process and the biggest battles that I have encountered have been mental. Talking to myself positively, getting enough sleep, getting that routine that's going to optimise my performance while also knowing what I'm representing, who I'm representing, what my values are, who I am. Those things are not that much in flux anymore, but getting more and more solidified and it's just a constant process of figuring those things out.

My team has been a really solid foundation of support for me and also my family. Having my family in the same sport as me growing up was very, very key to my success. I'm aloof and I’m always here to have fun, but doing it with a plan that I'm building for myself has always been a really crucial part of my success.

OC: As the only player in your first USA squad that wasn’t from California, in what way did you relish the challenge of succeeding despite being from a different background?

AJ:It was definitely an, “I'm going to prove it to you type of thing.” For a while the narrative in my head was, "What makes you unique is your strength, it's your power." You own it and you bring that to the table every day because if everyone were the same, we would all be doing the same exact thing, and that's not how a team is composed. That's not how we're going to succeed.

It's scary being different, but if you can change that narrative to something positive, like enriching an environment with your differences, then that's really cool and that's productive. Most people don't fit in, everyone's letting go of a part of themselves if they're just trying to fit in. It's a hard lesson to learn, but it's really important.

OC: At Rio 2016 you became the first African American woman to make a U.S. women's Olympic water polo team. While you took it in your stride at the time, is that something that you now look back on and realise how enormous a moment that was?

AJ: Oh, for sure. I grasped the gravity of it when I was when I was there, but I didn't really place myself in context. It was a huge step in the direction of being more inclusive. In my mind it created so much more opportunities for amazing talent to be able to represent our country. I believe that our society will be at its best when everyone has equal opportunity to every opportunity. Being the first black woman to represent the U.S. on the Olympic stage in water polo is huge. And I've also grown to realise it's not about me. It's about everyone who came before me and everyone who will follow me. And it's about our sport and it's about our world.

The best part of winning the gold medal was obviously sharing it with my team-mates and with our coach. I couldn't replace that memory with anything. But looking up into the stands and seeing my family there and getting to celebrate that win with them was absolutely incredible. I have five siblings - it's us and my mom. And that was the first international tournament that they'd come to watch. It was just really cool to share my family with my team and my team with my family.

OC: You took a break from the sport in 2017. What did you learn in that time?

AJ: I learnt that there's no environment that replicates the strength, compassion and shared focus of the Olympic movement and then the environment that we create here with our team. It's just something so special and it's something so unique that for as long as you can be a part of it, you should be a part of it. As long as my body will tolerate it, as long as my mind will tolerate it, I want to be in it because it's just so unique and the amount of support that we received from what we called our circle, you can't find that anywhere.

OC: Another area you’re heavily involved in is the Learn to Swim programmes in Miami. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

AJ: So after 2016, me and my sister established the Learn to Swim programme in conjunction with an academic enrichment programme called Breakthrough Miami. We taught their constituents how to swim for three summers. It was really cool and was really rewarding to see those little swimmers getting comfortable throwing a water polo ball too. Swimming is a life-saving skill. Swimming is something that's essential, especially in somewhere like Miami that's so proximate to water. Being on the beach, on a boat, in a pool, that’s a very normal thing. We started that with the intent of addressing this disparity between white children and black children. Black children are 40 percent more likely to drown than white children of the same age, which is ridiculous. It’s also about dismantling the stereotype that black people don't swim. Understand it and start to break it down so that it's not the norm anymore.

OC: How much have you seen the diversity in water polo improve, and how do you think we can continue to make it a more inclusive sport?

AJ: I do see pockets of diversity and pockets of change in our sport, but on a broad scale nothing's really changed. An improvement I've seen is that there's more open conversation within the people of colour who exist in our sport already. Before, it's like everyone was trying to walk around the thing that makes them different, and rejecting their own blackness as much as they can. But now I see spaces that are safe, that are created for black people, BIPOC people, to talk about the experiences that they've had in our sport. They hear others sharing the same things that they've experienced and you know that you're not crazy.

The Alliance for Diversity and Equity in Water Polo has been established and there is a long journey before we get to where we need to be. But we have a lot of action items like more camps in places where water polo isn't as accessible, and education about the history of aquatics. You can teach a population how to play the game and you're bringing these opportunities to people and start to dismantle those barriers.

Ashleigh Johnson made 51 saves in the USA 's victorious Rio 2016 Olympic campagin. 
Picture by 2016 Getty Images