The five-acre property was an overgrown jungle. The derelict house needed repairs. The abandoned swimming pool was a swampy pit covered with oozing green algae, where crabs scuttled over the rocks and trash.
But Donna Johnson saw an oasis. So she packed up her five children and moved from strip-malled west Miami-Dade to the Redland, a wild, Edenic place that reminded her of her native Jamaica.
They scrubbed the pool clean, but then the three brothers and two sisters had to learn to swim so they wouldn’t drown while their mother, a nurse, was at work.
They got pretty good at it. They got very good at it.
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A backyard pool in the Redland where five siblings used to pelt each other playing dodgeball is where it all started for Ashleigh Johnson, the goalie on the best water polo team in the world. Her shot-blocking defense will be key to the United States’ chances of defending its Olympic gold medal at the Rio Games.
Johnson, 21, is the first and only black athlete and the only non-Californian on the team. She hopes to inspire other minorities to make an impact in a sport that is overwhelmingly white.
“I’ve realized I can be an example to other black athletes and show them how much fun water polo is and how they can excel,” Johnson said. “When I was younger I didn’t really notice how I stood out because our mom didn’t raise us to see race as something that sets anyone apart. But now I’m proud to be a role model to a population that would love water polo if they knew about the sport.”
The 6-1 Johnson is known for her strength and flexibility in propelling herself high out of the water to protect the net. She made 10 saves, including one on a penalty shot, in the U.S. team’s opening 11-4 victory against 2012 silver medalist Spain. The U.S. plays China on Thursday and Hungary on Saturday.
“She’s got that incredible wingspan and can react to a shot faster than anyone who has ever played that position,” said U.S. coach Adam Krikorian, also alluding to the softspoken Johnson’s mellow, self-effacing personality. “Inside she’s a fierce competitor. You can’t be fooled by that beautiful smile.”
Johnson, who won four state titles at Ransom Everglades School, took a year off from Princeton University where she’s a psychology major to train with the national team in Long Beach, California. She was elevated to starting goalie while endearing herself to teammates who hail from California beach cities and collegiate powerhouses.
She’s known for her dry sense of humor, dance moves, adventurous palate and passion for awful horror movies.
“At first she was a little bit of an outsider but she has grown so much in her leadership and work ethic,” said KK Clark. “The coolest thing is to watch her in goal when she stuffs an opponent or rises up to reject a lob. And we like to watch her in the buffet line when we’re in China. We usually bring our own food but Ashleigh puts all the mystery foods on her plate.”
Clark was impressed at how Johnson became an ambassador for the sport at world championships in Kazan, Russia, last year, where she was named MVP.
“Russians don’t see someone of her skin color very often so they would stare at her,” Clark said. “But they embraced her because she’s brought so much excitement to water polo. They all wanted photos of her.”
Johnson initially lived with teammate Kyley Neushul and her grandparents in Whittier (water polo is not a lucrative sport) and they would eat at the Din Tai Fung dumpling restaurant.
“She’s a very warm, kind person and we’re all like family now,” Neushul said. “It’s important that we make a movement to diversify water polo. It’s a myth that African Americans can’t swim.”
Johnson is one of the fastest swimmers on the team, “which is like the kicker on the football team being fastest in the 40-yard dash,” Krikorian said. Johnson’s name is still on a 2009 plaque at Ransom for holding the school record in the 50 freestyle, 23.46 seconds.
She dominates every team gym workout to the point where “it’s not fair what she’s able to do,” Krikorian said.
At the Colorado Springs training center, a rope hangs 30 feet from the rafters down to the pool.
“A few of the girls can get a quarter to halfway up,” Krikorian said. “The first time Ashleigh tried she climbed that rope so quickly you could see every muscle in her body, and without generating a bead of sweat she got to the top, touched the rafters and dropped into the pool.”
Johnson’s dynamic skills are ideally suited to water polo, which is like aquatic rugby. Much of the action is under the surface, where players kick each other in the stomach. There’s scratching and punching and wrestling. Heads get shoved underwater. The men yank on opponents’ underarm hair. The women yank on swimsuit straps and zippers. During Johnson’s homecoming match against Hungary in June at the Ransom pool, watching the action through portholes revealed the extent of the nasty contact. Breasts were exposed, arms got entangled, caps ripped off. Referees call fouls when they can see them, but the art of disguise is part of the game. Players get away with grabbing legs but cursing can result in an ejection.
“I tell people I don’t box but I play water polo,” said Johnson’s brother William, 23. “It really is the hardest sport because it is so physically and mentally demanding.”
Johnson’s talent, and that of her siblings, was discovered by Carroll Vaughn, coach of the Cutler Ridge Riptides and at Gulliver Academy. The Johnsons excelled at swimming, but Johnson found it particularly monotonous.
“She hated swimming so she made a deal with my mom that she could quit after she won state in the 50 free as a sophomore,” said Johnson’s sister Chelsea, 20, an attacker at Princeton.
Vaughn, who happened to be an accomplished water polo coach and former player at Palmetto, offered her swimmers a carrot.
“I told them if they swam hard four days a week, I’d give them a ball and let them play on Fridays,” she said.
Vaughn helped Johnson develop her aggressive tactics in goal, her ability to bait shooters into bad shots and her passing accuracy on the counterattack. She saw her potential as “quarterback of the team, which is your job in the cage.” Johnson learned more from coaches Eric LeFebvre at Ransom, Luis Nicolao at Princeton. And from William.
“As goalie, she did not like telling people what to do and she was naturally quiet so she never used to talk,” he said. “But now that she does, she’s realized that’s her calling.”
Johnson was known as the lazy one at home. She was nicknamed ‘The Princess.’
“If we were doing chores she’d be inside reading or sleeping — and she did both voraciously,” William said.
Said Donna: “Whenever something needed to be done she was very good at hiding.”
It’s easy to hide at the Johnson’s place, where ackee, jackfruit, mango, avocado trees and bamboo shade the yard. Donna grows callaloo in her garden. The kids used to drive the tractor, swing in the hammock, play badminton.
“I bought a horse for the kids,” Donna said. “I don’t know why. That horse was never tamed for riding so she just walked around eating everything, and sometimes jumped the fence.”
Ashleigh named the horse Lonely and fed her so much sugar she would use up the supply in the kitchen.
The kids adopted 10 dogs over the years “because they would take in every stray that was abandoned around here by their owners from Miami,” Donna said, laughing at the memory. Rover, an 11-year-old German shepherd, still sleeps in bed with Johnson when she comes home.
Johnson’s teammates enjoyed Donna’s feast of curry chicken, pulled pork and rice and peas when they visited her house during their trip to Miami for the Hungary game.
“It was really nice to show my team where I came from and how I got to where I am,” Johnson said. “It’s like I was merging my two families.”
Donna is a hard-working single mom. Her ex-husband got an engineering job in Abu Dhabi and is not close to the kids, although “our relationship is improving,” Johnson said of her father. The Johnsons spent so much time at practices and games that being at the pool became their lifestyle, Donna said. Yet they never felt like “the black family.”
“We stuck out in a crowd,” said William, who graduated from Belen and the University of Florida. “But it was never an issue. Only when I got older did it even become a topic of conversation. If we could be successful in a predominantly Caucasian sport what’s to say anybody can be limited by anything at all?”
Donna ruled a color-blind household.
“I never looked at a person and saw race,” she said. “It would never occur to me to ask my kids what color their teachers are, or their friends or their bosses.”
That upbringing has kept Johnson so humble she doesn’t even like it when people say she’s humble. She’s embarrassed to sign autographs, as she was asked to do when she returned to Ransom, and she will be asked to do in Rio.
“She will always be our sister, and when she comes home we’ll fight over the remote,” Chelsea said. “She knows we can all still score on her.”