Water Polo Gold Medalist From Miami Inspires Interest in Her Sport

When Miami native Ashleigh Johnson won gold in Water polo at the Rio Olympics, she made history. And now, it appears she also helped the sport make progress.

After becoming the first black woman to play for the USA Women’s Water Polo Team at the Olympics, Ashleigh told NBC 6 she hoped it would inspire the next generation of athletes.

Against all odds, the daughter of a single mother from Jamaica, who grew up on a farm in Redland, Florida, became the star of a sport dominated by players from California.

And now, Johnson’s former youth coach says she’s noticing a spike in interest.

“We've had people that have come and joined the club because they knew about Ashleigh,” said Miami Riptides coach, Carroll Vaughan. “They saw her at the Olympics and then said to me, you're that coach that they talked about."

"When I realized that was her, I was like, ‘wow, she started at same place I started, so if she can do it, maybe I can do it too.’" said Elizabeth Perez, a 16 year-old water polo player at Gulliver Prep.

Just like Ashleigh, Perez is from Redland, plays goalie, and started out with the Riptides.

"It just gives you so much hope,” Perez said. “Like, I know it's possible."

Vaughan, who also coaches water polo at Gulliver Prep, says that since the USA Women’s team won gold, she’s seen an influx of younger kids sign up to play water polo with the riptides.

"We weren't getting young kids, 8 and under, 10 and under, a lot of the kids don't come to us until they're in 10th or 11th grade,” Vaughan explained.

She says that puts the players in South Florida at a disadvantage when competing for national spots or scholarships.

“It’s great that they have this love for the game and want to learn and play it, but they have such a short time (starting later)."

Vaughan says starting young is the first step in Florida catching up in a sport, dominated by California.

In fact, besides breaking racial barriers, Johnson is also the only player on the USA Women's team not from California.

"Having Ashleigh be from Miami, a girl of color, brought in that ethnicity,” Vaughan said. “Kids looking at her and saying, ‘I can swim, I can play water polo. I now have on my high school team three triplets that are from Nigeria.”

USA Water Polo says its sport is one of the fastest growing in the country, with membership up 25 % the last five years. And in Florida, it's up 14 % this past year.

For water polo in South Florida, Coach Vaughan says there’s still a long way to go. But, Ashleigh's rise to the top is already making a difference.

"They know her, she comes home every summer and plays with them, and she gets in the water with them."

Johnson and her sister Chelsea, who also plays water polo at Princeton University, help Vaughan run a water polo camp when they come home from college in the summer.

In the past, Perez was one of the young players in attendance.

"It's just really amazing to see her helping spread the sport by just by being her."

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