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Trailblazer Ashleigh Johnson takes water polo into uncharted waters

2016 Getty Images
“Your individuality is what sets you apart… and I love it,” says US water polo goalkeeper Ashleigh Johnson, who helped her team to win a stunning gold medal at Rio 2016. And it’s fair to say that as personalities go they don’t come bigger and more individual than her.

The 23-year-old was named the USA’s MVP on her way to gold in Rio, a recognition of a series of quite brilliant performances in between the posts for the Americans: her stats confirmed her as the top goalkeeper of the 2016 Games, with 51 saves and a save percentage of 64.6%. However, her achievements have had an impact that extends far beyond her own success or that of her team.

Already a legend

In a sport that has traditionally lacked broad popular appeal, often regarded as somewhat elitist with a grassroots base that has been predominantly white in the USA, Johnson is the first ever African-American woman to represent her country in water polo. She is a trailblazer in the truest sense of the term, one who has used her rise to the top of her sport to galvanise interest in water polo among sections of society in America, and beyond, who might otherwise not have paid it much attention.

The fact that she had to step into the gap vacated by Betsy Armstrong, arguably the greatest water polo goalkeeper of all time, made her challenge all the greater, but she has risen to it brilliantly. Already she is herself being spoken about as one of the all-time greats of her sport.

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She owes her start in the sport to an enthusiastic parent. “I feel I didn’t really choose water polo. I just fell into it and I loved it,” says Johnson, who took up the sport along with her sister after their mother encouraged them to try water sports. Given the choice between swimming and water polo, it was, she says, an easy decision.

On a mission

Academically gifted, Johnson was accepted by Princeton University, one of the USA’s prestigious ‘Ivy League’ colleges. She was clear that, despite wanting to go as far as she could in water polo, she also wanted to prioritise her academic studies. Indeed, alongside her sporting career she is currently writing a thesis on how people of colour are perceived in spaces where diversity is a goal - a topic that she can obviously speak about from personal experience.

“Making the Olympic team was an important step in my mission to become a role model for black girls and any other people who want to play this sport.”

And her national team coach has no doubts about Johnson’s capacity to inspire others and to spread the water polo message. “People from different communities can now look at someone like Ashleigh Johnson and say: ‘I can do that exact same thing’”.

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