By Matt Szabo - @mjszabo
Ashleigh Johnson is the best women’s water polo goalie in the world.
She led the United States to Gold at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, and the Princeton University senior won the 2017 Cutino Award honoring the best collegiate water polo player.
Her experience in the game speaks for itself. But it’s her experience due to her skin color also that’s motivated others across the country on a different level.
Johnson is an African-American—in a sport that doesn’t have a lot of African-Americans. And every time Johnson makes a save, someone like Ruth Efe takes notice. Efe, a junior at Boulder High in Colorado, also is a goalie—and also is African-American.
The numbers are stacked against someone like Efe from ever picking up the sport—or even getting into the water. A 2010 study commissioned by the USA Swimming Foundation and conducted by the University of Memphis found that nearly 70 percent of African-American children have low or no swimming ability. The figure was just 40 percent for Caucasians.
There is historical context for these numbers. Consider this excerpt from a 2010 BBC article on African-Americans and swimming in the United States. Professor Jeff Wiltse, author of “Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America,” told the BBC that the reason for this issue could have roots in the era of segregation.
“The history of discrimination … has contributed to the drowning and swimming rates,” Wiltse said. In his work, Wiltse identified two periods when U.S. swimming rates boomed – in the 1920s and ‘30s, when recreational swimming became popular, and in the 1950s and ‘60s, when the idea of swimming as a sport really took off. The first boom was marked by the construction of about 2,000 new municipal pools across the nation.
But they weren’t for everybody.
“Black Americans were largely and systematically denied access to those pools,” Wiltse told the BBC. “Swimming never became a part of African-American recreational culture.”
African-American women, in particular, have had limited success in aquatics at the national stage. Until the games last summer in Rio, no African-American woman swimmer had ever won an Olympic Gold medal in an individual event. That changed when Simone Manuel, a 20-year-old from Texas, tied for the Gold in the 100-meter freestyle. Manuel gave thanks to African-American swimming trailblazers like Cullen Jones, Lia Neal and Maritza Correia after her victory.
Johnson provides a great role model for water polo, and Efe makes due with what she can. There’s no girls’ water polo program at her high school, but she plays club for the Rocky Mountain Neptunes. Efe is used to being one of the few girls in her area to play the sport, and her race is another factor that sets her apart. In Boulder, only about 1 percent of the population is African-American.
“[Water polo] is really not popular out here,” said Efe, whose parents emigrated from Nigeria to the United States. “You always have the, ‘Where do you put the horses [in water polo]?’ joke. Every time I talk about it, people just say, ‘Oh, isn’t that hard?’ Most of the time, I feel like African-Americans are more pushed toward sports like football or basketball.”
As for her perspective on Johnson, Efe said she thinks of her “more as a goalie than her being African-American. But it also is encouraging, because there are not a lot of African-Americans who play the sport … I’m so used to being the only black kid with my friend group. I’m used to being singled out, so when I see someone like Ashleigh Johnson play her game and not let any of those other things get in her way, that is encouraging.”
Mia Rycraw, a redshirt junior goalkeeper at Arizona State, trained and competed with the senior national team this summer. Rycraw has come a long way in a short period of time, having started playing the sport when she was a sophomore in high school in Walnut, CA, under the guidance of coach Lani Ruh. “She told me that I would be a good goalkeeper because of my height and the length of my arms,” said Rycraw, who now stands at an even 6 feet tall.
Before that point, Rycraw said she couldn’t even swim. She comes from a basketball family, as her mother Eugenia Miller-Rycraw played in the WNBA for the Los Angeles Sparks in 1998-99. Last year, Mia Rycraw earned second-team All-American honors after leading Arizona State to its second NCAA Championships appearance. She’s third in Sun Devils program history with 738 career saves—and she’s aiming for the 2020 Olympics in Japan.
But she said being an African-American in water polo was an eye-opening experience, especially when she first started to play. When she did come across other people of color, she would make sure to exchange contact information and keep in touch.
“In a lot of cities, the access to pools is not very common,” Rycraw said. “There’s so many components that go into it, but I definitely think that if USA Water Polo tries to reach out to inner-city communities, they can definitely attract more people. I didn’t even know what it was until I entered high school—and I was in California, where it’s really popular.”
The lack of access is definitely a factor, said Fana Fuqua, a goalkeeper who starred at Cal from 1998-2001 and also spent some time on the national team. Fuqua originally got into the water because she had asthma as a kid, and her pediatrician recommended swimming. Growing up in Menlo Park in the San Francisco Bay area and swimming for Solo Aquatics, Fuqua got into water polo in high school. After watching a particularly exciting boys’ water polo CIF Central Coast Section playoff game at Menlo-Atherton High, Fuqua and her swimming teammates started wondering about playing the sport themselves. Fuqua helped establish the girls’ water program there—not that she got a lot of encouragement from her friends.
“In high school I had girls trying to start fights with me,” Fuqua recalled. “They said, ‘Why do you play the white sport?’ I’m like, ‘You can totally come out and try out for the team, there’s nothing stopping you.’ When I was younger in high school, if there was any adversity, it came from people with my own skin color. They were just not understanding it. And I had a little bit of it in college, not in a bad way. But a lot of the guys on the basketball team—African-American guys at Cal—they were like, ‘How did you get into the sport? We never had access to something like this.’ I’m like, ‘My parents put me in swimming.’”
Fuqua has stayed involved in the sport in her native Bay Area, where she’s the goalies coach of Lamorinda Water Polo Club. In terms of getting more people of color into the sport, Fuqua pointed to the work of four-time Olympian Brenda Villa, who has an aquatics center named after her in her hometown of Commerce.
Villa also has remained involved in the sport. After retiring as a player, she started a program for kids at the Belle Haven pool in East Palo Alto, CA.
“Black people are not supposed to be able to swim, not supposed to be able to do these things that white people do,” Fuqua said. “But you’ve got to look at Commerce—a powerhouse of aquatics, and they’re brown just like I am. Somebody said, ‘We’re going to open up a pool, and people are going to play. We’re going to give you that opportunity.’
“I think it starts with water safety and education. If you’re not water safe, water polo is going to be really, really hard, if not incredibly dangerous. If you can’t swim, and someone’s grabbing or holding you in some way, that’s a very traumatic experience.”
Increased access could lead to more players like Ashleigh Johnson, Fuqua said, and ending a stigma. “It’s great when people are like, ‘Wow,’” Fuqua said of Johnson’s success. “And it’ll be even better when people are like, ‘Yeah, she’s a great water polo player,’ and it’s not this huge thing. She’s really good, regardless of what her skin color is. She’s a really, really phenomenal goalie, and is going to improve tenfold if she decides she wants to continue to play.”
Anthony Tolbert, himself an African-American goalie, definitely sees Johnson as a role model. Tolbert is a junior at Buchanan High in Clovis, California, where he also plays basketball. Last year, he went to watch Johnson in action when Team USA came to Fresno as part of a three-game exhibition series against Australia.
Tolbert decided to try out water polo in seventh grade because he enjoyed swimming. “There’s a lot of stigma to water polo,” he said. “Like, ‘Oh, you guys just wear Speedos and grab each other.’ Because it’s not that popular of a sport, [African-Americans] just aren’t exposed to it. They don’t really know what it’s about. The games aren’t really nationally televised, except for some games on the Pac-12 Network. People aren’t really flipping to those channels on a Saturday. But if they see the Warriors are playing the Lakers [in basketball], they’ll definitely watch that.”
Tolbert said it’s been a “unique experience” being a person of color and playing water polo. That’s part of the reason why he has a lot of respect for Johnson and what she’s accomplished.
“I’ve never felt disadvantaged,” he said. “All of my coaches and teammates have been great. But I’d say my experience has been different. If you to go tournaments and you see another African-American player, it’s kind of a special thing.”
Genai Kerr, a goalie for the United States in the 2004 Olympics, remembers people singing Bob Marley songs when he made blocks during international competitions—because he had dreadlocks at the time. He noted that there’s been a long line of successful African-American goalies, including the likes of former Loyola Marymount star Andy Stevens, who was that program’s first four-time All-American. Kennedy Joseph, a former Los Alamitos High star who started 19 games last season for Siena, is another example of a current standout African-American goalie at the collegiate level.
Kerr first met Ashleigh Johnson when she was a kid coming to USA Water Polo camps in her home state of Florida. He said he’s always been rooting for her. The key to creating more standout players of color like her is creating more opportunities for them to play, Kerr said.
“I didn’t know the sport existed until I was 15 years old,” he said. “Now it’s a lot different, because there’s more coverage outside of the Olympic years on some of the college networks. You also have USA Water Polo posting all of the high-level games on YouTube, and I think that’s helping tremendously—to watch it secondhand. But I think having clinics, exhibition games in predominantly minority communities, and letting people firsthand how exciting and dynamic the sport is, is going to attract people to it.
“I think in the past, we’ve traditionally gone for swimmers, converted swimmers into being water polo players. We’ve missed out, a lot of times, on attracting some of our country’s best athletes in general, because they’re drawn to sports they’re more familiar with at younger ages.”
Maybe the continued success of someone like Johnson, who’s just 22 years old, could help in that regard. Rycraw believes that it can.
“She’s been an amazing role model,” Rycraw said. “Her winning the Gold at this past Olympics was amazing to see. History was made. But leading up to that, I’ve read articles, and she’s experienced some of the things that I’ve experienced. Us both being black, we’ve experienced these things, and that helped me. I understand there’s somebody else who knows what it’s like to be a minority playing this sport. It’s not the easiest, but she’s definitely been a great role model.”
To find a Splashball program in your area where children can learn water safety and the game of water polo, visit SplashBallUSA.org. If you’d like to bring a water polo clinic to a community where the game isn’t offered, contact USA Water Polo at firstname.lastname@example.org. Olympians including Tony Azevedo, Cullen Jones, Missy Franklin and others are teaming up with USA Swimming and their “Make A Splash” program to help children get water safe. Learn more at MakeASplash.org.
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