Max Irving competes during the men's classification match against Team Italy at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 6, 2021 in Tokyo.
For Max Irving and Ashleigh Johnson — Team USA’s only two black water polo athletes — Black History Month is about sharing their stories, as well as reflecting on those who came before them.
“Reflection for how far we’ve come as a group of people, both within the U.S. and within the greater black community,” Irving shared. His hope during Black History Month is that “we can all look around, open up conversations and really take advantage of Black History Month and be inspired and try to inspire others. I think that’s something that’s really important.”
His teammate Johnson is someone who has been an inspiration to him — just as he knows he is to others.
Johnson became the first African American woman to make a U.S. Olympic women's water polo team in 2016 where she plays the challenging position of goalkeeper.
“I hope me being here encourages, at the very least, one person to try something new — challenge them to learn a new sport or break a narrative that they have in their head and push past a limit of theirs or that society has put on them,” Johnson said.
Those limitations almost stopped Irving from doing what he loves when he was around 10 years old. Three years after he learned to swim, he started hearing whispers of stereotypes like, “black people can’t swim,” and “black people don’t belong in the water”.
Initially, his reaction he said was to reject what he heard. But ultimately, he decided to prove them wrong.
“If I don’t belong in the water, I’m going to show them that I belong. So, for the next kid who might hear, hey, black people can’t swim and black people aren’t really supposed to be playing aquatic sports, not only can they have that self-belief, but they can also think, okay, we have Ashleigh Johnson, we have Maxwell Irving,” he shared.
Johnson’s fear is that hearing those stereotypes before someone even tries to swim might lead them to believe it as true.
The two teammates admit they were lucky to have the support of their family.
“You see me, you see Max and you don’t see the people behind us who encourage us, who are aware of stereotypes but didn’t define us by them. They didn’t limit our potential because of what they heard about black people,” Johnson said. “They knew these stereotypes weren’t true and didn’t pass that on to us to limit us.”