LOS ALAMITOS, Calif. — Ashleigh Johnson propelled her torso via the water’s floor, lunged to her left and proper and flashed her lightning-quick reflexes throughout a latest observe which have helped distinguish her as one of many world’s greatest water polo goalkeepers.
Change may be seen and heard solely exterior of the pool as Johnson, 26, prepares for the Tokyo Video games.
“I’ve undoubtedly had loads of conversations — and actually, actually tough conversations — particularly with individuals in my sport,’’ she advised USA TODAY Sports activities. “Being part of a predominantly white sport means that almost all would not perceive your expertise.’’
5 years in the past, Johnson was a reluctant trailblazer, the primary Black lady to signify the USA in Olympic water polo.
She giddily accepted a gold medal on the 2016 Rio Video games because the beginning goalkeeper on the U.S. staff that thrashed the competitors. However she resisted talking out on behalf of different Black athletes, together with those that confronted restricted alternatives in water polo.
Then got here 2020, and the demise of George Floyd, and Black Lives Matter marches throughout America, together with Johnson’s hometown of Miami.
“I have not personally been out to protest,’’ she mentioned. “I have not felt comfy partaking in crowds. However I’ve engaged within the motion in my very own methods.’’
The change has been most seen throughout staff conferences, mentioned U.S. nationwide staff head coach Adam Krikorian.
“In her first 4 years, you wouldn’t hear a peep,’’ Krikorian mentioned. “Now she is fast to step up and say one thing she sees that both reinforces what the employees has mentioned or, fairly actually, even goes in opposition to perhaps what we see and what we’ve mentioned. Which is one thing that we’ve inspired all alongside.
“She’s all the time been gifted, an unbelievable goalkeeper. I feel we’ve all identified from the start that she could possibly be the perfect on the planet. However the one factor we didn’t know was whether or not she may add extra worth, exterior the water. And I feel that has been the factor that I have been probably the most pleased with, is simply to see her rising into that management function.’’
Johnson mentioned she wrestled with how her personal id impacted her function as trailblazer. Though she was born in the USA, she is the daughter of Jamaican dad and mom.
She nonetheless asks her mom for home made curry rooster and Ackee and Saltfish, one other Jamaican staple.
“Being the primary African-American lady to signify the U.S. on the Olympic stage in water polo has include its personal pressures and its personal duty,’’ she mentioned. “And I, for a very long time, wrestled with the concept of who and what I signify exterior of the water and within the water. And the place the traces are drawn between me as an individual and who I signify and what I have to do as an athlete.
“It was actually overwhelming at first as a result of I did not perceive the context of entry to aquatics within the U.S. for African-People and lots of people do not. So I carried the burden of getting to elucidate that to individuals and break down all of those stereotypes and in addition absolutely perceive the historical past of the U.S. as a younger lady within the sport. That is a very arduous and a giant duty.’’
WHEN DO OLYMPICS START? What new events will there be in Tokyo? Here’s what you need to know about Summer Olympics
Three years in the past, she helped begin a swim program developed for underserved youngsters who had a really completely different expertise than her personal. Johnson and her siblings grew up in a home with a pool within the yard.
“I had daymares and nightmares about all of them drowning,’’ mentioned Johnson’s mom, Donna. “Significantly, if I referred to as the home and no person answered the cellphone, I used to be dashing residence as a result of I had visions of everyone drowning. So I needed to get all of them swim classes.’’
By means of swim classes at a public pool, the Johnson youngsters have been launched to water polo. Quickly they have been hooked, and Ashleigh Johnson was growing right into a star.
At Ransom Everglades Excessive College in Miami, she helped information the staff to a few consecutive state championships — and on the similar time found one thing troubling about her sport.
When she started touring to regional and nationwide competitions as an adolescent, she was among the many few gamers of colour within the pool.
In Miami, she had participated in annual water polo camps run by Genai Kerr, who in 2004 grew to become the primary African American to compete for the U.S. nationwide staff on the Olympics, and Omar Amr, the son of Egyptian dad and mom who performed alongside Kerr.
She additionally performed for Felix Mercado, a outstanding coach of Puerto Rican respectable. However on the nationwide scene, exterior the range of Miami, the colour of the game, pale to white.
“That was an enormous adjustment as a younger woman,’’ she mentioned. “It actually made me wish to keep residence. It made me wish to be the place I used to be comfy to be with my household and with my buddies.’’
In 2013 she did depart residence, accepting a scholarship at Princeton College, the place she completed because the all-time chief in saves. She additionally returned to the nationwide scene.
In 2016, Johnson skilled with Olympic hopes, secured a spot on the roster and earned the job of beginning goalkeeper. Since then, she emerged as greater than a trailblazer.
“Once we journey all over the world, she’s a celeb,’’ Krikorian mentioned. “It’s not like anybody that I’ve ever seen in our sport.
“I feel a few of it has to do with the colour of her pores and skin and the unfamiliarity with that in our sport. And you then mix that with the excellence through which she performs the sport and her athleticism. And doubtless most significantly, simply her infectious character and that smile.’’
It’s a megawatt smile, on show after a latest staff observe on the Joint Forces Coaching Base Aquatic Coaching Heart. However the smile fades when Johnson talks about social points and the way she and different Black athletes are sometimes recognized.
She is widely known for her athleticism, and the presents are simple as she maneuvers her 6-foot-1 body within the water. However she takes exception to Black athletes like herself being described as “pure athletes.’’
“You are not simply born with that,’’ mentioned Johnson, a member of the Alliance for Range & Fairness in Water Polo. “Would not simply come to you. It’s important to put the hours in. It’s important to grind. It’s important to work along with your teammates.
“All of us, as Black athletes, put in the identical quantity of effort and time to develop and attain this talent stage.’’
On the Tokyo Video games this summer time, she would possibly draw consideration exterior of the pool, too.
The Worldwide Olympic Committee has introduced it’ll uphold Rule 50, which states “no sort of demonstration or political, non secular or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic websites, venues or different areas.” However Johnson indicated she is prepared to violate the rule.
“It is not one thing that we have mentioned as a staff, however it’s one thing that I’ve considered personally,’’ she mentioned. “I feel it is actually essential that we as athletes take the stage that we’ve got and use it to precise our beliefs, and assist the individuals who aren’t supported in our society and converse out in opposition to the people who find themselves oppressors.
“I simply assume it is a actually essential a part of having a platform and of being an athlete.’’