Swimming gold medalist Simone Manuel is not the only African-American woman with a landmark achievement in a Rio Olympic pool.
Water polo goalie Ashleigh Johnson also has made history for black women in the water, whether she wins a medal or not – and her team has a perfect (4-0) record going into Wednesday afternoon’s Olympic semifinal against Hungary.
Manuel, 20, of suburban Houston, became the first African-American woman to win an individual swimming gold medal. In her reaction to that moment of triumph in the 100-meter freestyle, she also won worldwide acclaim with an emotional and eloquent acknowledgement of those black swimmers who had inspired her and her desire to inspire others.
Johnson, 21, of far exurban Miami, is the first black woman to represent the United States in Olympic water polo.
She also hopes her presence will have an “if-you-can-see-it, you-can-be-it” effect in motivating other African-American kids to learn to swim, whether or not it leads them to compete in one of the sports.
“I have encountered some young black boys and girls as I have been playing with the national team,” Johnson said before the Olympics began. “It is inspiring to me to see them there, knowing that by looking at me they could see a chance to reach the level we’re at now.”
There are other similarities between Manuel, who also won a relay gold and both individual and relay silver medals, and Johnson, last year named MVP of the gold-medal match and goalkeeper of the tournament at the world championships.
Both come from big, high-achieving, highly competitive families. Both attend academically elite universities: Manuel is a rising sophomore at Stanford, Johnson a rising senior at Princeton. Both took a year off from school to train for the Olympics.
But there is one big difference.
Johnson hates swimming. That’s why she trained hard enough to be able to quit swimming and play only water polo for both her high school and the aquatics club she had joined at age nine.
“My sophomore year of high school, I made a deal with my mom and coach that if I won the state title, I would get to stop swimming,” Johnson said.
At 15, she won it for Ransom Everglades in the 50-yard freestyle — coincidentally, one of Manuel’s medal events (in the metric version). Johnson’s time, 23.46, was only .13 slower than Manuel’s best in the 50-yard free at age 15. Johnson’s potential was evident.
“Put plainly, instead of everybody talking about Simone Manuel at this Olympics, we would be talking about Ashleigh as well,” Ransom swim coach Andy DeAngulo told the Washington Post, “She would have been a superstar.”
But Johnson happily bid farewell to what she saw as the sports equivalent of navel-gazing.
“I don’t like being in my head a lot,” she said. “That’s what a lot of swimming was for me, just looking down at the black line (in the bottom of the pool) and thinking about something else rather than what I was doing.
“I feel like water polo is really engaging for me, a good social thing. I didn’t see that with swimming. Water polo is just more fun.”
Johnson’s disdain for swimming was so complete it would be one of the reasons why she chose to be a water polo goalie. “You don’t have to swim a lot,” she said, laughing.
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The other reason was Johnson’s copying her younger sister, Chelsea, now a rising junior at Princeton. When Chelsea became a goalie, so did Ashleigh. When Chelsea left the net to become an attacker, Ashleigh stayed.
U.S. Olympic women’s coach Adam Krikorian has called Ashleigh, “one of the most athletically-gifted goalkeepers our sport has ever seen.” That Johnson was able to turn those gifts into the starting spot on the Olympic team very quickly still seems improbable, given her singularities.
Not only is Johnson one of the few black athletes in the sport, she is the only one on the 13-woman Olympic roster not from California. When she chose Princeton over the California universities recruiting her (California schools have won every NCAA women’s title), that further established her status as an outsider.
When she first was invited to a national team training camp in 2013, the only thing Johnson knew about the team came from seeing them play on TV at the 2012 Olympics. She would soon make the team and be named goalkeeper of the tournament at the 2014 World Cup, but Johnson didn’t feel she belonged until last summer’s start of a year-long residency camp in Los Alamitos, California, to prepare for the 2015 worlds and 2016 Olympics.
“The coolest thing has been getting to know all these people,” Johnson said. “It seemed I had always been on the outside looking in at this program. Being from so far away, you always felt you didn’t really know what was going on in California. If you’re just coming out for a weekend, you’re really a stranger.”
Johnson came to that camp as the 2015 Collegiate Water Polo Association Player of the Year. Her play has improved substantially since.
“That’s what happens when you practice with the best players in the world,” she said. “You either grow with them, or you don’t make the team.”
After recording a .667 save percentage in the three games of the Olympic prelims (third best among the tournament’s eight starters), Johnson stopped all six shots she faced before giving way to backup Sami Hill in the final quarter of a 13-3 rout of Brazil in the quarterfinals.
“Our focus as a team is always defense first and a commitment to keeping our defensive effort consistent throughout every game.” Johnson said after Tuesday’s practice. “That being said, I think that my game has room for improvement, and I’m going to be pushing myself and our defense to be at the level that our team aims to be defensively every time we play.”
Having beaten Hungary 11-6 in group play, the reigning world champion United States is favored to meet the Russia-Italy winner in Friday’s final. Should Team USA win, Johnson may have the chance at a Simone Manuel moment.
“Simone’s achievement is inspiring to me because I respect how much time and effort it takes to swim competitively and because she is a black woman who has been so dominant and successful in her sport,” Johnson said. “I hope that the way I play my sport has the same effect on people watching me as it does for them watching Simone — to motivate people to get in the water and to try water polo because there’s so much opportunity in the sport, and it’s a really fun and intense game to play.”
Philip Hersh, who is covering his 18th Olympic Games and was the Chicago Tribune’s Olympic specialist for 30 years, is a contributor to TeamUSA.org.