Like many children raised in sweltering South Florida, Ashleigh Johnson learned to swim out of necessity because her family had a pool in their backyard. She picked up water polo by chance: she and her four siblings had boundless energy and the local recreational pool happened to offer youth lessons.
More than 20 years later, Johnson anchored the U.S. women’s water polo team in Tokyo to its third consecutive gold medal. She is known for her “brick wall” goalkeeping, but also for being one of the few Black athletes competing for the U.S. in the overwhelming white world of Olympic water sports.
“I never really envisioned myself as an Olympian or playing for the national team because I never saw anyone who looked like me out there,” she said. “If people would stop telling [Black] people that they don’t swim, then it wouldn’t become part of their story.”
When water sports roll into the spotlight every four years around the Olympic Games, it’s striking how few Black athletes are competing at the highest level, including for the U.S. Officials at national governing bodies for water sports—swimming, diving, water polo and artistic swimming—acknowledge the obvious: their sports are perceived as very white, with few Hispanic, Asian-American and Pacific Islander swimmers and even fewer Blacks.
After years of exploring community outreach efforts, those organizations in 2020 moved to create formal structures that would help them diversity amid the national reckoning over race in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd.