A Golden Journey: Ashleigh Johnson Has Shined As Backbone Of Team USA Water Polo

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A Golden Journey: Ashleigh Johnson Has Shined As Backbone Of Team USA Water Polo

Ashleigh Johnson, a two-time water polo Olympic gold medalist, continues to put in the work to stay on top of her game, a level of talent that has made her a global water polo icon. And with it, she’s contemplating what it will take to keep elevating the sport in the global consciousness.

Ashleigh Johnson has reached the top of the Olympic mountain twice, and the vantage point offers perspective.

Olympic gold medals for the U.S. water polo team—in 2016 and 2021—were certainly the goals for Johnson and her teammates. As she reflects on them, though, it’s the journey that stands out. For all the perfection in the ending, it’s the process to get there—the messiness, the grind, the moments of uncertainty—that sticks with her.

With space to reassess after the Tokyo Olympics and to map her priorities anew, that has stood out to Johnson. And as she calculates what she wants from the next Olympic cycle, the 27-year-old is in no hurry to reach the end.

“We can get really fixated on the Olympic Games, but there’s so much that happens in the four years, in the three years, in the two-and-a-half years that lead up to the Games,” Johnson told Swimming World. “So many of us are playing abroad. Some of us are in college. Some are pursuing other interests outside of water polo with the mindset that you’re going to be coming back to the team and you’re going to be training hard.

“So it’s knowing that there’s different levels to be attained in this time, and we don’t need to be at the top of our game right now, but we will get there.”

Johnson understands that building process. A new team of Americans will coalesce in the two-and-a-half years remaining to the Paris Olympics. That group will carry some of the DNA of the last three gold winners in a program that has literally and figuratively become the sport’s gold standard. But the new group will develop unique traits as it writes its story.

A League Of Their Own

Johnson has begun her part of that process. With time to recharge from the arduous five-year lead-up to Tokyo, she’s back in the pool, with Greek club Ethnikos. She’s one of three Americans from the Tokyo squad—along with Maggie Steffens (at Spain’s CN Sabadell) and Greek-born Ethnikos teammate Stephania Haralabidis—to head to Europe for club play.

It’s an opportunity Johnson can’t have any closer to home, given the lack of club water polo in the United States. She’s grateful for some part of that, since it requires the Princeton graduate to live in a different culture and broaden her global horizons. Living in Piraeus, a port city in greater Athens with Mediterranean beach weather in January, isn’t a bad perk. Nor is a vibrant fan culture, where Johnson has a chance to play before raucous crowd support, particularly when it comes to young water polo players that she relishes in helping to inspire. The chance to play with and against different teammates, to learn their intricacies in and out before tangling on the international stage, is one of the things that gives the cerebral goalie life.

But her joyous club experiences exist out of sight from most American fans, remote from the base of supporters that tune in for the Olympics every four years. “It enriches the whole Olympic cycle,” Johnson said. “I wish more people could see it.”

When Johnson laments something like that, it’s not a passive process. She’s always looking for ways to make things better, which lately has meant delving into the psychology of business, of how people express themselves economically. And she’s connecting the dots from her studies to her sport. In so many American sports, women have taken control of their professional destinies, demonstrating the economic value of investing in women’s sports and the return that they can bring. She hopes to be able to lift water polo into that same echelon during her career.

“I’m trying to get our sport there,” Johnson said. “Within water polo, there’s such limited pathways to get to the professional level, to anything past college, and there’s so much talent and so many who want to play past college. I think the next step is a league in the U.S.”

Johnson draws inspiration from a number of examples. The National Women’s Soccer League has created long-sought stability for club soccer in the U.S., riding the wave of popularity of America’s back-to-back World Cup winners. The WNBA is growing a quarter-century into its existence, embracing inclusiveness across gender and race boundaries and touting its star power. The Athletes Unlimited organization has leveraged the individual brands of Olympic stars such as volleyball player Jordan Larson and softball player Cat Osterman to form innovative leagues; it’s also expanding into lacrosse and basketball, and it’s the kind of model Johnson would love to follow.

Johnson is no stranger to pushing for change outside of the pool. Innovating in the water stems from the same vein.

“Everyone’s pushing for change in their sport, and I see that going past sport,” she said. “I see that speaking to the world of women, and it speaks to how our world is changing and how women are being more empowered and just recognizing their power.”

To Paris and Beyond?

Johnson’s career accomplishments are already voluminous. She’s won two Olympic gold medals, two World Championships and a Pan Am Games gold. She’s been named the most outstanding goalkeeper at both of her Olympics. She’s a trailblazer—as a Black woman in the sport and as an American Olympian from outside the traditional hotbed of California. Away from the pool, the Miami native was named one of Forbes’ 30 Under 30 athletes for her focus on swimming education. She’s as close to a household name as a water polo player in the United States is likely to get.

It’s quite the career, and it could include a third Olympics before age 30. But Johnson hasn’t begun to contemplate her legacy. Brilliance in Rio aside, she was unsure if she’d even get a second Olympics, so she knows the third is not guaranteed.

Johnson stresses living in the moment, whether in her activism or her preparation in the pool. It means she hasn’t sketched out how long she wants to play, beyond wanting “freedom to decide when I decide” her career is complete.

What’s certain for now is that she’s going to keep pushing—in the water in Greece and in her work beyond sports. She’s partnered with her sister, Chelsea, also a Princeton water polo standout, for the Johnson Sisters Swim Clinic to extend vital learn-to-swim curriculum to traditionally underserved communities in South Florida. She’s one of the most visible water polo players, male or female, in the U.S., and given how few non-white people have attained that status, she’s not going to take it for granted.

On that front, Johnson’s goals are clear, and they connect directly to growing the sport, from the grassroots to the elite levels.

“I want to continue to bring our sport to people who look like me,” she said. “I want to continue to inspire Black people, brown people—people who don’t look like the typical representation of somebody’s water polo player—to be that water polo player, to change the image and continue to bring water polo to the world stage.”