Pioneering Black Olympic Gold Medalist Talks About Battling Prejudice in Her Sport

Ashleigh Johnson — goalkeeper for the U.S. water polo team that won gold in the 2016 Olympics — spoke to a schoolwide assembly of EHS students last night about how she overcame challenges as a Black athlete in a predominantly white sport and enthusiastically took up her role as a pioneer breaking race barriers. 

“I struggled when I was younger to embrace my platform, to embrace my voice,” said Johnson, the first Black woman to play for the U.S. women’s Olympic water polo team. “But I realized that if my story, if my voice, reaches one person, then that's enough.”

With EHS shifted to distance learning until early October, Johnson spoke to students via a  videoconference. Her talk was the year’s first event organized by the School’s McCain-Ravenel Center for Intellectual and Moral Courage, which was created as part of the 2018 Strategic Plan and develops  programming focused on issues of the day.

Growing up in Miami, the daughter of Jamaican immigrants, Johnson started swimming at a young age. Her mother pushed her and her four siblings into lessons after the youngest nearly drowned in a pool when he was 18 months old. 

Johnson was playing competitive water polo by age 9 and benefited from top-flight training that Omar Amr, a 2004 Olympian in water polo, made available for her family. She says Amr, the son of Eyptian immigrants, recognized the barriers facing her family and “literally cleared a pathway for me and my siblings.”

Even as she climbed the rungs of the sport and became a star at Princeton, Johnson found that people doubted her. “They questioned my work ethic, my commitment to the sport, my family values, my intelligence, and many other things that weren't about me at all,” she says. These doubts, she says, were rooted in the color of her skin.

Initially, Johnson said, she reacted by trying to “push away my race. I was like: ‘Let me make myself so small that they can't see me, that they literally forget that I'm a black woman.’”

Over time, however, she says she learned to embrace her racial identity and to knock down challenges by focusing on her positives and talking herself up. “I love who I am right now,” she says. “And I wish that I could have given myself that talk and that confidence when I was younger, because I really needed it at times.”

Johnson encouraged the students in the School’s racial-justice work this year and urged them to examine the racial lens by which they view the world and their friends. “I am really proud to see that you're all engaging in these conversations and having these difficult discussions,” she said. “You're going to be able to affect change. And the change starts with these conversations and listening and learning.”