When the pandemic pushed back the Tokyo Olympics to 2021, Ashleigh Johnson was one of the many athletes who was disappointed by the news. As Team USA’s water polo goaltender, she had spent her previous four years working to repeat the gold medal she won with her team in Rio de Janeiro.
But in the extra time she and her teammates had to prepare for Tokyo, she learned that her team could get better. Could get stronger. Could get closer — even as she and her teammates weren’t spending time together in the pool.
“While you're not necessarily competing together or you don't really know what's going to happen next, having all of this uncertainty has made us all step up for each other in different ways and see our relationship to sport and to each other in different and more deep ways, which I love,” Johnson said. “We thought we were at our peak a year ago. We thought we were at our peak when the Olympics were supposed to happen last, and it turns out we had so much more room to grow.”
Water polo has been a part of Johnson’s life since she, along with her siblings, joined a water polo program at her local pool in south Florida. She liked swimming but really loved the social and active nature of water polo. Playing the sport with her sister and three brothers allowed the family to work out the issues every family has in the pool.
“I think I wouldn't be as competitive as I am now if my family hadn't been in it with me,” Johnson said. “We're such a competitive family. Growing up, we even used to fight over the remote.
“Everyone has those little spats with their siblings, but getting into the game, it was like we could fight. We could do all of the things that weren't allowed at home and then we could be OK. It taught us to conflict-resolve. It taught us to even buy into the team in a way that maybe most people have to learn to do because their family isn't there.”
From playing with her family, Johnson went to Princeton, where she played alongside her sister Chelsea. When she made the U.S. Olympic team in 2016, Johnson became the first Black woman to make the U.S. water polo team and then the first Black woman to win water polo gold for Team USA.
In Rio, Johnson was fresh out of college. This time around, she’s a leader who won gold not just at the Olympics but also at the 2019 world championships. She takes that role as seriously as she handles the job of goalkeeping.
“I'm not just going in and worrying about myself. I'm worried about how the team is working together,” Johnson said. “I'm looking at different things and trying to approach that and bring my best self in, in how I can lead others and inspire others and also continue to inspire myself and grow and change.”
While at Princeton, Johnson earned a degree in psychology. Though her current focus is on water polo, she said the degree does come in handy when trying to work on those bonds within her team.
“It sparked my interest in understanding people's whys and understanding even my why, like why I approached this sport the way I do, how I play, all of that,” she said. “But it's more come into play like my understanding of my teammates outside of the pool, my understanding of where I want to go after sport, my understanding of the role of sport in my life and the effect that I can have on others past just being in the pool. Past just being an athlete, past just being the water polo goalie. How do I inspire others and how do I inspire myself?”
Working with her teammates and learning their why has also helped Johnson and the water polo team hone in on their goal for Tokyo.
“Obviously, our goal is to win gold, and it's to do it in the way that we can, which is together, athletically, beautifully,” Johnson said. “We want to do it, but we want to do it in the way that we know how and the way that we know we can do it and we're getting there. We're working towards that goal.”