Ashleigh Johnson and her four siblings were usually the only African Americans in the pool when they began swimming and playing water polo in Miami. She never thought much about it because that was the case at her prep school, Ransom Everglades, and in many of her other experiences.
Not until Johnson won a place in the U.S. water polo national development program and her brothers and sister were no longer beside her did she feel she stood out for something besides her goalkeeping skills.
“It wasn’t just being different, it was being black in a predominantly white space, and it was just such a new experience for me generally,” she says. “It was a new feeling for me then and in college, and even now I struggle with my identity, like understanding what it means to be a leader in this sport and be someone who’s kind of trailblazing in my own way.”
One of the few non-Californians on the U.S. women’s water polo team, she was a goalkeeper on the squad that won the 2015 world championship and the gold medal at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. She took time off to sample the corporate world but returned to lead the U.S. to a third consecutive world title in 2019 and a berth in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
“She seems like she could have been an excellent athlete in anything, and we’re just the fortunate sport that she chose,” U.S. national team coach Adam Krikorian says. “She’s athletic. Her hand-eye coordination is phenomenal. She’s got great leg strength. Quick reactions. This sounds silly and obvious, but her vision, her ability to be able to focus on the ball and see it all the way through to her hand, is unlike anyone in the world.”
Johnson took up the sport after her mother, seeking an outlet for the kids’ energy, took them to a swim class.
“She’d never heard of water polo. Never touched a water polo ball. I don’t even know if she still has touched a water polo ball,” Johnson says, smiling. “I swam for a month, then started water polo. It was like an instant connection. We loved it. I loved it. It was just a super-competitive household and the perfect place to express that competitive spirit.”
Johnson, 25, says she and her sister Chelsea, who’s in law school, loved being compared to sister tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams.
“They’ve just been black women killing it. They’ve just done their thing, unapologetically, and it’s so inspiring and it’s really cool to have had them to look up to. And they’re so different. I was Venus. It was really cool to have these two sisters, right place, right time, like just role models for me and my sister. And I continue to look up to them.”
The Williams sisters’ success has drawn other black women to tennis; Johnson, hoping to do the same in the pool, ran a swim school in Miami with her sister for two years.
“I think that, historically, black people and people of color have been barred from accessing aquatics, have been told this narrative that we’re not supposed to swim. Black people don’t swim. Like, it’s not good for your hair, it’s not good for your skin. And those things seem kind of petty, they seem kind of unimportant, but they become a reality when you’re told something enough times,” she says. “It becomes part of your legacy. This program [was] partly to break those stereotypes, bring black people into aquatics in general, teach this life-saving skill, but it’s really just to allow black people to access the opportunity that is aquatics.”
Johnson relishes being a role model.
“I think there’s a lot of young kids who don’t have anyone to look up to, or maybe could look up to someone but still feel like there’s a door that’s separating them from what they could be. They can’t see their full potential,” she says. “I think that I can be that final push, or part of that push that gets them to try something new, something they’ll be really good at and something that would be really good for them.”
Simone Manuel reacts at the Swimming Winter National Championships on Nov. 29, 2018 in Greensboro, N.C.
At the Olympic Games Rio 2016, Simone Manuel won an Olympic gold medal in the 100-yard freestyle and became the first Black female swimmer on Team USA to win an Olympic gold medal in swimming.
She was glad to be an inspiration to others, she told reporters.
“But at the same time,” she added, “I would like there to be a day where there are more of us, and it’s not Simone, the Black swimmer. The title ‘Black swimmer’ makes it seem like I’m not supposed to be able to win a gold medal, or I’m not supposed to be able to break records.”
Eight days later, Team USA won the Olympic women’s water polo tournament, and goalkeeper Ashleigh Johnson became the first Black woman from the U.S. to win an Olympic gold medal in water polo.
These two women have followed in the very narrow wake of top Black athletes in aquatics in the U.S., including Olympic medalists Anthony Ervin, Maritza Correia, Cullen Jones, and Lia Neal.
It’s a short list—a list that these athletes would like to lengthen.
In Tokyo next year, the 2020 U.S. Olympic and Paralympic swimming and water polo teams will likely have several Black athletes, including Manuel, Johnson, Paralympian Jamal Hill, who won three medals in swimming at the 2019 Para Pan American Games, and 2019 Pan Am gold-medal-winning water polo player Max Irving.
They too want to inspire more kids to join them in the pool. Mostly, though, these aquatic icons want more Black kids to learn to swim for safety’s sake. It’s reported that 64 percent of Black children have little to no swimming ability, compared to 45 percent of Hispanic and 40 percent of White children, and Black kids ages 5-10 are 5.5 times more likely than Whites to drown in swimming pools.
To further diversify the sport, and make it safer, it’s important to look at the long history of systematic racism that has led to the dearth of Blacks having opportunities to swim.
This discrimination has “cast a long shadow to the present day,” said Dr. Jeff Wiltse, author of Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, by phone.
History of Pool Access and Segregation
Despite the attention Manuel, Johnson, and the other Olympic medalists have brought to Black athletes in aquatics, swimming is still too often thought of as a White sport.
But it was not always this way. For centuries, Africans were renowned for their aquatic culture.
“At their first encounter with sub-Saharan Africans in the 1400s, European explorers found a culturally aquatic people who learned to swim in the coastal and river villages of West Africa, both men and women, as soon as they could walk,” reads the introduction to “Black Swimming History” on the International Swimming Hall of Fame website. “For centuries, Africans were regarded as the world’s greatest swimmers.”
In the U.S., racism erased swimming from Black culture.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Blacks and Whites swam together, but not by gender. They swam in municipal bathhouses built for working-class people who lacked in-home bathing facilities.
Thanks to working-class boys, who had fun rough-housing in these bathing pools, swimming soon became viewed as a recreational activity—a way to promote physical fitness instead of (or in addition to) cleanliness.
In 1913, Fairgrounds Pool opened in St. Louis, Missouri. It was a giant facility, with a circular pool and sandy beach. As a leisure resort simulating the seaside, Fairgrounds promoted swimming as a family activity, with its two pools open to both men and women. The pools attracted thousands from all socioeconomic classes.
But because men and women swam together in what was then considered a state of compromised dress, Blacks were excluded. They were not, however, excluded from other public facilities in St. Louis. The pool, wrote Wiltse in Contested Waters, was a “sexually charged public space.”
“The thought of Black men interacting with white women at a municipal pool—where erotic voyeurism, physical contact, and making a date were all possible—heightened these fears and compelled city officials to officially exclude Black swimmers,” wrote Wiltse.
Whites also harbored the misconception that Blacks were not clean and carried communicable diseases. And in an era where physical fitness mattered, muscular Black men threatened the delusion of White male superiority.
Between 1920 and 1940, pools like Fairgrounds proliferated thanks in part to the fame of Olympic stars Johnny Weissmuller, Ethelda Bleibtrey, who won three gold medals at the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp, and English Channel swimmer Gertrude Ederle.
Every summer, these leisure pools became community centers where people from all walks of life mingled daily—and kids learned to swim.
“It was the fact that these pools were appealing, affordable, and accessible that enabled the swimming rates in the United States to grow significantly,” said Wiltse.
Class did not matter. But race did.
In the south, Jim Crow laws kept Blacks out of pools. In northern cities, when Blacks tried to enter these luxurious public pools, they were turned away for dubious reasons. When pool attendants did let Blacks in, White swimmers took matters into their own hands.
On the second day that the large Highland Park pool facility in Pittsburgh opened in August 1931, 50 Blacks were allowed entrance (having been turned back the previous day after attendants asked them for “health certificates”). Wiltse recounted in Contested Waters what happened next.
When the Black swimmers approached the pool, some of the estimated 5,000 people already in the water began shouting threats. The young men appealed to police officers stationed at the pool for protection but were told that once they entered the water, the police could (or rather would) do nothing to help them. Frightened but undeterred, they slipped into the crowded pool.
There, they were beaten or held under water until all 50 had left the pool facility. Similar violence occurred at pools across the northern U.S. Often, police either refused to intervene or arrested the Black swimmers for “causing” the disorderly conduct.
The message to the Black community was clear: People of color were not welcome at swimming pools.
Some municipalities built segregated pools. But the facilities for Blacks were rarely as nice as the pools for Whites—separate but definitely not equal.
The message to the Black community was clear: People of color were not welcome at swimming pools.
During this era, Black swimmers also faced restricted access to YMCAs, where many people learned to swim—and still learn to swim.
In 1953—a few months before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional—the NAACP brought the issue of swimming pool segregation in Baltimore to the courts. The organization originally lost the case. But on appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ordered Baltimore to desegregate its pools.
As public pools across the country were ordered integrated, Whites fled to the suburbs, where they built private, member-only swimming clubs. Attendance at the once-vibrant public pools in the cities dwindled. Unable to pay for maintenance, municipalities closed many public pools, often in the inner cities.
In the 1960s, to combat race riots, a few cities built pools for inner-city residents. But these pools were typically small, above-ground pools with little deck space and hardly room to actually swim.
At the private suburban swim clubs, swimming thrived in the 1950s through the 1970s, an indication of how embedded swimming had become in White culture. Backyard pools also became popular.
As Wiltse pointed out in “The Black-White Swimming Disparity in America: A Deadly Legacy of Swimming Pool Discrimination” in the Journal of Sport and Social Issues, approximately 1,200 private swim clubs existed in the U.S. in 1950. By 1962, this number had exploded to 23,000.
These swim clubs offered both swim lessons and competitive swim programs—“the real seed beds to the spread of competitive swimming programs,” said Wiltse. As such, they became the seed beds for Olympic hopefuls.
“It was much more likely and easier if you were white, middle-class, and you grew up in the suburbs to have a pathway to becoming a competitive swimmer than if you were not, if you lived in a city and especially if you were poor, non-White, and lived in a city,” added Wiltse.
Even when Blacks joined swim clubs and swim teams, they almost always encountered overt racism or micro-aggressions—and they still do.
In a “Swimmers for Change” webinar in June, four-time Olympic medalist Cullen Jones recounted the day that he finally beat a White teammate in a race. Jones was 15 at the time. He was talking to his parents, celebrating his triumph, when the mom of the White competitor walked by and said, “Shouldn’t he be playing basketball?”
For Ashleigh Johnson, it was others who often pushed racial stereotypes on her—“Calling me the exception,” she said, “asking me why other Black people don’t swim, asking me to confirm whether Black people can float.”
And Olympians are not the only Black swimmers who encounter hostility. Many Black people continue to be harassed by Whites at pools across the country.
It’s no surprise that so few Black athletes have made it to the Olympic Games in aquatic sports. After a century of discrimination in pool access in the U.S., swimming as part of Black culture is still in the shallow end.
To bring more kids into the sport—for Olympic glory but more importantly, for safety—the paradigm must shift. If a parent does not know how to swim, a child has a 13 percent chance of learning to swim, according to Diversity in Aquatics—an organization that promotes water safety, drowning prevention, and aquatic activities in historically underrepresented communities.
Even in the 21st century, many people of color still do not have access to easy-to-reach, affordable swimming facilities. This fact has too often led to devastating results.
Cullen Jones teaches swimming techniques with a group of kids during the Make A Splash event on Nov. 19, 2010 in New York City.
Make a Splash
To change this culture, Olympians and Paralympians are tackling the problem of how to bring more people of color into aquatics.
Jones—who learned to swim after almost drowning at a water park in Philadelphia at age 5—became the face of diversity in swimming after he won an Olympic gold medal in the 4 x 100 freestyle relay at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, helping the team set a world record in the process. Soon after, he became involved with the USA Swimming Foundation’s Make A Splash Tour, designed to bring awareness to the importance of teaching children to swim to underserved communities.
The organization has partnered with local swim lesson providers in over 1,000 communities, a network that has taught more than 7.5 million children how to swim since Jones became involved.
In June, during the “Swimmers for Change” webinar, Jones said that he wants to bring Make A Splash to “the neighborhoods that really need it.”
“Southside Chicago, Memphis, we’re coming back,” he said.
Simone Manuel is also a Make A Splash ambassador.
In mid-June, several Black Olympians also helped USA Swimming craft a message, announced on Twitter, announcing the organization’s commitment to foster inclusion in swimming and to use its platform to educate and inform people about social injustice and condemn racism and discrimination.
Swim Up Hill
Paralympian Jamal Hill also wants to teach more kids to swim. But his own way.
He first learned to swim in a YMCA Mommy & Me program. His mother did not know how to swim and wanted to ensure that her son did. Hill began swimming competitively around age 7. Three years later, he was diagnosed with Charcot-Marie-Tooth, a hereditary neurological condition that can result in progressive loss of muscle tissue and touch sensation. But he continued to swim, competing in high school.
He joined the Paralympic movement in 2018 and decided to give back to the sport. He has set a goal of teaching 1 million people to swim. But not through traditional lessons.
“We already know that some of the big barriers [to learning to swim] are cost and access,” he said by phone from California. “But I think cost and time are bigger blockers than access.”
He pointed out that traditional swim lessons take “an unnecessarily long time” before people are comfortable in the water. And private swim lessons can run up to $100 per hour.
Hill and his coach/business partner developed the Swim Up Hill method. It’s a five-hour learn-to-swim course for ages four and up—ten 30-min sessions for younger kids, or one-day crash courses for older people.
“[By the end] they can breathe, they can move forward, they can float, all these amazing things,” said Hill. “They’re 100 percent water safe.”
Ashleigh Johnson competes at the Pan American Games Lima 2019 on Aug. 10, 2019 in Lima, Peru.
The Alliance for Diversity and Equity in Water Polo
For water polo players Ashleigh Johnson and Max Irving, pool access and education—helping people understand the history of segregation and exclusion in aquatic sports—are key to moving forward.
In the past couple of months, Johnson and Irving have become involved with The Alliance for Diversity and Equity in Water Polo, an organization so new that it only has a Twitter handle (@TheAlliance_WP). Its website is “coming soon.”
“We’re connecting generations of Black and non-white aquatic athletes to try to combat some of these issues of acceptance, accessibility, and inclusion,” said Irving, who’s on the men’s national water polo team with his eye on making the 2020 U.S. Olympic team.
Irving learned to swim at age 7 because his mom was a competitive swimmer. His cousins introduced him to water polo, and he came up through the private club system—a system that he recognizes costs “a significant amount of money.”
This cost, which keeps many kids out of water polo, is one of the hurdles that The Alliance aims to address.
Johnson—whose mother ensured that her five children knew how to swim because they had a backyard pool—believes that education, role modeling, and increased accessibility to water polo games (by getting the sport on TV more often than the Olympic Games) will help bring diversity to the sport.
“A big obstacle is just education, accepting and understanding the history of our nation in terms of White and Black relations and exclusion in aquatics,” she said by phone from California, where she recently rejoined national team training after the spring’s pandemic lockdown.
“People hear the stereotypes and hear all these stories, and they do not know where they came from,” she added. “You’re never going to disprove the stereotypes and overcome the subconscious bias without education.”
In mid-June, USA Water Polo formed the Racial Equity & Reform Task Force, co-chaired by four-time Olympic medalist Brenda Villa and USA Water Polo’s chief of sport performance John Abdou. The task force aims to expand access to water polo for all, especially people of color, while ensuring zero tolerance for racism.
We’re connecting generations of Black and non-white aquatic athletes to try to combat some of these issues of acceptance, accessibility, and inclusion.
Max Irving, Water Polo
As a history professor, Jeff Wiltse looks back to see the way forward. And the best solution might simply be more pools. Historically, when people had access to pools, swimming became a part of their communities and their families’ recreational culture.
Kids are eager to swim if it’s easily accessible, and parents want their kids to learn to swim if it’s affordable.
“If we as a society want to increase rates of swimming, both as a matter of social justice, as a matter of health, and as a matter of saving lives,” he said, “the best way to do that is to provide more swimming pools.”
And to accept that every human, no matter their gender, race, or creed, has the right to learn to swim.