Ashleigh Johnson stands out in the pool because of her athletic talent, but also her background.
Johnson is the only black player on the U.S. Women’s National Water Polo team. She’s also the only player not from California.
"I didn't even really wonder why there weren't any more black people on the team,” Johnson said. “That's just how it's always been.”
Johnson grew up on a five-acre farm property in the Redland, surrounded by jackfruit, avocado and tamarind trees, raised by her Jamaican-born single mom, Donna Johnson.
"It is mentioned a lot,” Donna Johnson said about her daughter’s ethnicity. “A lot of people ask her about it, so she is very conscious of it, but i don't think it affects the way she sees herself.”
Ashleigh says she’s never faced any outward prejudice or even heard opponents make comments about how she’s different. "I'm sure they think it, but they don't say it, and they definitely don't say it after the game, because we beat them," Johnson said with a big smile.
Johnson is only 20 years old, but she’s quite comfortable breaking barriers. This month, she was named “Goalkeeper of the Tournament” when Team USA won Gold at the Water Polo World Championships in Russia. She was also named MVP of the Gold-medal game.
That performance has her on the verge of becoming the first ever black player on the U.S. Women’s Olympic Water Polo team.
"I'm actually very conscious of the fact that I could be a role model for young black girls and I can be someone (they) could look to as an example,” Johnson said.
“When someone of her ethnicity comes in and has that success, it puts her in a great position of influence,” said Adam Krikorian, Head Coach of the U.S. Women’s National Water Polo Team. “You wouldn’t want anyone else out there as a spokesperson.”
Krikorian first heard about Ashleigh when she was in 7th grade. He was coaching at UCLA at the time, and his assistant coach was doing a water polo camp in Florida. “She called and said, ‘there’s this kid, she’s going to be the next great goalie.’” Krikorian recalls.
The coach was right. But Johnson’s path to becoming a world-class Water Polo player was almost accidental.
She discovered the sport when her mom took them to a pool behind their elementary school in Cutler Ridge for swimming lessons. There was a coach there, Carroll Vaughan of the Miami Riptides, who happened to be an accomplished Water Polo player. She used water polo as a reward for doing well in swimming.
Ashleigh never liked swimming. But she was so good at it, there was pressure to compete. As a Sophomore at Ransom Everglades, Johnson won a State Championship in the 50-meter freestyle.
"I actually made a deal with my swimming coach that if I won that year, then I wouldn't have to continue swimming,” Johnson said. “And I won, so I didn't have to do it anymore!”
Donna Johnson had never even heard of water polo when her five kids started playing it. So you can imagine her surprise at the prospect of her middle child competing in the Olympic Games in Rio.
"No, that never crossed my mind,” Donna Johnson laughed. "It was just to have something for them to do and keep them busy. It’s not something I sought."
In Miami, not exactly a water polo hot-bed, Ashleigh says people ask a lot of questions when they find out she plays the sport.
“What is water polo? How do you get the horse in the water, that’s a really common joke," she said.
But perhaps water polo will be on South Florida’s radar next summer. The U.S. Women’s team won Gold in London in 2012, and chances are good that Ashleigh will be in goal when the team tries to win again in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.
Qualifying for the Olympics is next March. Ashleigh is currently taking a year off from college at Princeton to compete with the national team and make her improbable Olympic journey a reality.