Two days after winning an Olympic gold medal on August 7, and a day after the Summer Games Closing Ceremony, Ashleigh Johnson ’12 and her U.S. water polo teammates flew from Tokyo to their training home in Los Angeles. Feeling a mix of elation and exhaustion after the 11-hour flight, Johnson was met by a USA Water Polo marketing coordinator at baggage claim.
“Can you go to New York City tonight?” the marketing coordinator asked.
Johnson stared at the coordinator in disbelief. “That’s a quick turnaround,” she recalled saying.
That night, after a four-hour stop at her apartment in Los Angeles, Johnson arrived to Manhattan, jetlagged and disoriented but determined to enjoy the moment. The next morning, she rang the bell to open the New York Stock Exchange. She did an interview with CBS This Morning. She had meetings with her growing list of sponsors. She did a number of television interviews and posed for photos next to the Fearless Girl statue.
“It’s been,” Johnson said by phone from New York, “a whirlwind.”
But well worth it. After claiming her first gold medal in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, Johnson found winning the second brought more attention, more responsibility and, she noted, more opportunity to make a difference.
“These things are once-in-a-lifetime,” she said. “The mission has always been to elevate our sport, continue to grow our sport and bring positive change. It’s been very, very cool to be representing all of my communities … and also being a role model for black youth in our sport.
“That’s really important to me,” she added. “I’ve been getting lots of messages from kids on Instagram, and on Twitter, saying how cool it is to see someone that looks like me out there.”
The U.S. women’s water polo team was an overwhelming favorite to win the gold, yet the journey to the 14-5 title-game victory over Spain – Johnson, a goalkeeper, saved 11 of 15 shots – was anything but easy. In March 2020, the team took a break from training as COVID-19 emerged, and the break turned into months of isolation, doubt and worry. Johnson and her peers were devastated when the Olympics, originally scheduled for that summer, were canceled because of the pandemic.
Johnson remained in California, enduring solo workouts in her apartment and little pool time. The team didn’t resume training together until November 2020 and, even then, practices took place with no contact and in small groups. Yet, somehow, Johnson felt enormous gratitude that fueled her through the uncertain winter.
“I got a little shift in perspective,” she said. “I was choosing to be here. It’s such a cool opportunity that I get to work hard in this environment, among all of these high-achieving women, and to have the structure of a team, and support of a team.”
The closeness of the women’s team helped during the Olympics, which took place in empty arenas thanks to the ban on spectators. The water polo Olympians shared emails and videos from family and friends. And they supported one another.
“We just thought: ‘We’ve been each other’s biggest fans, and biggest support for so long, this is just another tournament to do that, and our support is going to be even greater,’” Johnson said.
Johnson held video calls with her family throughout the Games; maintained “a constant text conversation” with her sister Chelsea Johnson ’14; and felt love from the entire Miami and Ransom Everglades communities. After her stay in New York, she planned to enjoy some time with her mother and siblings in Miami before heading to Greece to play water polo professionally.
“Every Olympic experience is different … but this one was really different,” she said. “As much as it’s been overwhelming, it’s just so rewarding to see all of this come to fruition.”