U.S. water polo star Ashleigh Johnson embraces role outside the pool

LOS ALAMITOS, Calif. — Ashleigh Johnson propelled her torso through the water’s surface, lunged to her left and right and flashed her lightning-quick reflexes during a recent practice that have helped distinguish her as one of the world’s best water polo goalkeepers.

Change can be seen and heard only outside of the pool as Johnson, 26, prepares for the Tokyo Games.

“I've definitely had a lot of conversations — and really, really difficult conversations — especially with people in my sport,’’ she told USA TODAY Sports. “Being a part of a predominantly white sport means that the majority doesn't understand your experience.’’

Five years ago, Johnson was a reluctant trailblazer, the first Black woman to represent the United States in Olympic water polo.

She giddily accepted a gold medal at the 2016 Rio Games as the starting goalkeeper on the U.S. team that thrashed the competition. But she resisted speaking out on behalf of other Black athletes, including those who faced limited opportunities in water polo.

Then came 2020, and the death of George Floyd, and Black Lives Matter marches across America, including Johnson’s hometown of Miami.

“I haven't personally been out to protest,’’ she said. “I haven't felt comfortable engaging in crowds. But I have engaged in the movement in my own ways.’’

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