Growing up in Miami, FL, Ashleigh Johnson was always in the pool, but water polo competition was hard to come by.
Now, a two-time Olympic Gold Medalist, Johnson looks back on what it was like playing a less popular sport in her home state of Florida.
“If you look at the landscape of water polo across the U.S., it’s pretty much in every state, there’s like two or three places where water polo is alive and rampant,” Johnson tells Kelley O’Hara on the Just Women’s Sports podcast. “Those three places compete against each other over and over until everyone goes to California and compete in Junior Olympics.”
In Florida, Johnson says there were three major teams that played each other all the time, adding that water polo was “not very developed” or “very well known.”
“Water polo is like ten times bigger in California, everyone knows what it is, especially in Southern California.”
The sport is beginning to grow, but water polo hasn’t always showcased athletes that represent the diversity of the American population.
“The narrative is changing now, but being a part of this team, I’m the first African American woman to compete on the Olympic stage in water polo for the U.S.,” says Johnson. “That’s a huge thing that I carry with me, but it’s also representative of how much more water polo has to grow across the state. It’s not just race-based, even though that’s a big part of aquatics in general. It’s just water polo across the board needs more popularity.”
There is no professional water polo league in the United States, with most athletes, including Johnson playing abroad for international clubs.
“Personally, I’ve been wanting to find a pathway to explore a league within the U.S., and I know that there is so much talent at the college level, but people just kind of pack up their suit and pack up the ball.”
Johnson says more professional opportunities in the United States could open the door for broader growth and mentorship in the sport.
“If there were a league in the U.S., I would be the first to join it,” says Johnson.
Listen to Johnson’s full conversation with O’Hara on water polo, her Olympic journey and her historic career here.