Water Polo Olympians on How the Sport Is an 'Empowering Space' for Women: It's 'All About Family'
Ashleigh Johnson and Maggie Steffens, two pivotal members of the U.S. Olympic women's water polo team, are proud to play in a sport that is diverse and inclusive.
Johnson and Steffens, who are gearing up to compete for another gold medal at the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, tell PEOPLE about the bond their team shares and how water polo has become a safe haven for women of all backgrounds.
"It's one of the most empowering spaces for women," says 26-year-old Johnson, goalkeeper for Team USA and the first Black woman to make the U.S. Olympic water polo team. "And I just think about our team. I think about our body types. I think about our confidence. I think about the ways that we're different and that we're all so strong and unique. And how in this environment, we learn to celebrate everyone's strengths. We learn to celebrate and recognize our weaknesses, and rely on others to fill in where we can, or learn from others."
"It's just such an experience to have grown through sport as a woman because I've constantly been developing and redeveloping the way that I relate to other women, the way that I relate to my body and my mind, the way that I will carry myself into the world," Johnson adds. "And I don't feel like I've encountered many limiters in terms of who I am as a woman, in terms of my identity. I feel like every new iteration of myself is stronger, better. And that's because of this environment, that's because of the women that I'm surrounded with. And you don't find that many places."
Steffens, who ranks second on the all-time scoring list in Olympic water polo history, with 38 goals, reiterated her teammates' words about their beloved sport. "Water polo is all about family," she says.
"Water polo is all about community. There aren't many sports where that is the prime value," explains Steffens, 27. "And even by just trying this sport, you're going to join that family, you're going to join that community, and you'll feel it instantly. That is the first thing I think about all the friends I've made, all of the amazing teammates I've had, all the leaders that have shown me the ropes of how to be a strong, independent woman, how to discover myself.'
Both Johnson and Steffens, who took home the gold medal at the 2016 Summer Olympics (Steffens was also on the gold medal-winning team at the 2012 Games) believe that for any woman looking to get involved in sports, water polo is the one to try.
"If you're competitive and you want to try something new, this is an amazing place to play tough, play strong, play fast, be competitive, but most importantly have a lot of fun," Johnson tells PEOPLE. "And do it with people that you'll learn to love, and that will become your family and community."
Although water polo "needs to do a much better job" at ethnic diversity, as Steffens put it, the athletes believe the sport has also become a shining example for all kinds of body types.
"Especially for girls, body image is a real thing. It's really difficult," Steffens says. "And not to say that we don't have that in this sport, it exists everywhere. But you can be anyone. You can look any way and still be on this Olympic team. You can still make it to a college sport, especially in water polo. And I think that's a really important thing to acknowledge."
"So it's kind of a gift we can give to young girls: try this sport out and realize you don't have to look a certain way to play sport," she adds. "You don't have to look a certain way to be the best. You can just be you. You can be your unique self and have that celebrated."
In general, Johnson says that she's excited for what's to come for all women's sports and their continued accomplishments. "We're here and we're strong and we're loud and we're together," she says.
"We are crushing it," adds Johnson. "Everyone, look out for the Olympic women because we're a force to be reckoned with. And that's really, really cool."
To learn more about all the Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls, visit TeamUSA.org. Watch the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics this summer on NBC.
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