Ashleigh Johnson, Olympic Water Polo Star, Serves as an Inspiration for Black Youth

Written by on May 9, 2024

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*In 2016, Ashleigh Johnson became the inaugural Black athlete to join the U.S. Olympic water polo team. Today, she’s using her platform to advocate for youth empowerment, especially in underserved communities

After making history with the U.S. Olympic water polo team, and clinching a gold medal, she secured another gold in the Tokyo Games four years later. Now at 29, Johnson is universally recognized as the top player in her position globally.

“The longer that you play a sport, the less it becomes about you,” Johnson said, NBC News reports. 

“I remember when I was young on this national team and just starting to find my footing, I didn’t understand why it was important for me to be here. But I understand now,” she continued. “As a Black woman of Caribbean descent in this sport, I definitely feel a special obligation to be a light for little Black and brown girls — and boys — who may be interested in swimming and water polo. That’s really special and is a priority for me.”

As NBC News points out, interacting and bonding with children continues to be one of Johnson’s cherished experiences in her athletic journey.

“It’s so cool to see how inspiring the sport can be,” Johnson said. 

“These kids sometimes share their experiences, their struggles, and the chances are I’ve been through something like they have been and [I’m] able to give them some words of encouragement,” she added.

“We’re all unique in some way, but we’re all so similar in other ways. And getting to have these experiences with the kids makes us all really strong,” Johnson continued. 

Throughout her journey, Johnson has encountered and overcome challenges and adversity, often stemming from racism. Her Jamaican mother, Donna Johnson, was unaware of her daughter’s conflicts.

“I didn’t realize she felt alone a lot of the time,” Donna Johnson said. “I raised my children to see people as people, which, in retrospect, was a very naive stand. I was never concerned about that aspect. I was more concerned about her being taken care of since I wasn’t there. But as I became more enlightened, I realized she was the only Black in most cases, which is an American condition for Black people.” 

Despite their challenges, Johnson and her siblings found strength in “the foundation my mother built in all of us,” as she expressed. 

“She instilled in us that we are worthy and beautiful and belong,” Johnson stated.

“So as much as there were times when I felt isolated, I actually felt more powerful being there. I also had a realization that because I was different didn’t make me stand out in a bad way,” she continued. “You end up realizing you have the power to change that and to make it a welcoming space for other Black people or brown people who may come after you.”

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