What Makes You Different Is Your Strength: Ashleigh Johnson Continues Her Pioneering Water Polo Journey
by Chrös McDougall
Ashleigh Johnson in action during the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on July 24, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.
TOKYO — A few years ago, at the water polo world championships, an opposing player tried to surprise American goalkeeper Ashleigh Johnson.
Late in the game, with Team USA holding on to a narrow lead, the Dutch team earned a penalty shot. The shooter decided to try a “donut,” a high shot that catches the goalie with their hands above their head, loosely resembling the doughy breakfast treat.
“Ashleigh just got up super big and blocked it with her head,” teammate Makenzie Fischer recalled. “It’s just a 5-meter (shot) and a really big world championships game and she took it to the face — and that’s awesome.”
The U.S. went on to win that game and the tournament. In fact, the victory gave Team USA the title in every major tournament, and it’s won every other major tournament since. In Tokyo, the team is going for its third consecutive Olympic gold medal, which would tie the all-time record in the sport.
As the players are quick to tell you, though, this specific team hasn’t won anything yet. That was tested last Wednesday, when it fell to Hungary in preliminary round play. The loss was the team’s first at the Olympics in 13 years and only its second defeat overall in nearly 3.5 years.
The loss is hardly reason to panic though. A big reason for that, literally, is Johnson.
Standing 6-foot-1, Johnson has become the sport’s premier goalkeeper.
“Ashleigh does amazing things in the game of water polo,” teammate Maddie Musselman said. “I think when you watch her in the pool, it looks easy, but that girl is treading water really, really fast, and her athleticism to save the ball that way that she does, she saves out butt a lot.”
Johnson, 26, has been on her game so far in Tokyo. In the opener, she held the Olympic hosts at bay as Team USA set a bevy of offensive records in beating Japan 25-4. Following the rare loss to Hungary, Johnson stopped 16 of 21 shots faced against the Russian Olympic Committee. The 18–5 win sent the Americans on to the quarterfinals, where they’ll play Canada on Tuesday.
“She was locked-in today,” coach Adam Krikorian said. “I mean you could see it from the beginning. When she’s playing like that, we’re a much better team.”
Johnson has been locked in pretty much from the start with Team USA.
After earning top goalie honors at the 2013 junior world championships, Johnson split duties at the next year’s FINA World Cup, where she was again named top goalkeeper. Besides being elevated to the full-time starting role, the story has been written the same way at just about every major event since: Johnson dominates, Team USA wins.
“Anybody who’s watching the game sees how dominant she is in the water and how dominant she is as an athlete, and as a goalie,” said Maggie Steffens, Team USA’s top offensive player.
To start, she’s from Miami and played college water polo at Princeton. That makes her the only player on this U.S. team not from California, and who didn’t go to college in California (Stephania Haralabidis was born in Greece but attended high school in Los Angeles and college at USC).
More significantly, Johnson is also a pioneer for diversity in the mostly white sport. In 2016, she became the first Black woman to make the U.S. team. In the years since she’s regularly been the only Black player on the squad. That’s again the case in Tokyo.
It’s a distinction she embraces as an opportunity.
“The thing that makes you different is something that makes you unique and special,” she said.
Persistent questions about race follow Johnson. She’s always gracious in response.
“I’ve realized that my role in this sport, my role in aquatics, my role in these Games is going to be someone who represents something that’s so much bigger than me, past Team USA, past just me, and that’s a very special responsibility,” Johnson said. “And I don’t carry it alone. I carry it with my teammates. I share it with the other athletes in aquatics who are also people of color.”
Johnson’s teammates are among those inspired by her example, with Steffens calling her a “beacon of light” in the sport.
“She’s somebody who is shining a light on that and saying it doesn’t matter what you look like, it doesn’t matter what skin color you have, it doesn’t matter where you’re from, your dream is possible,” Steffens said. “And she’s opening that door for so many people.
“That’s a lot of pressure that as the only Black woman really on this Olympic stage for water polo that she carries, and we hope as teammates that we can carry that with her.”
Although Johnson is still the only Black player on this U.S. women’s team, she is confident that others are watching these Olympics.
“I hope that young girls watching us compete are able to take away that the thing that makes you different is your strength,” Johnson said. “I don’t look like anyone on my team. I don’t come from the same place as anyone on my team. It took me a long time to see how powerful that was for me, and that [being different] wasn’t something that was going to hold me back but something that was going to empower me.
“So I hope they see the opportunity there is here in our sport, and that they can literally do anything that they set their mind to.”
Want to follow Team USA athletes during the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020? Visit TeamUSA.org/Tokyo2020 to view the medal table, results and competition schedule.