Goalkeeper Ashleigh Johnson is helping Team USA's women's water polo team defend their gold medal from Rio in 2016

By Lindsay Kimble
July 22, 2021 03:21 AM
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Ashleigh Johnson
| Credit: Courtesy of NBC Olympics/USOPC

The women's water polo team's bond isn't just in the pool.

Team USA water polo goalkeeper Ashleigh Johnson tells PEOPLE the women she competes alongside are very "close-knit."

"There's a baseline of respect among my teammates," the 25-year-old says of the team, who are hoping to defend their gold medal from the 2016 Summer Games in Rio. "And we all understand where each of us is coming from. I'm definitely really, really close with some of my teammates. But in my mind team is like family. You respect people and you meet them where they are and you give what you have to give to them."

Johnson says that the COVID-19 pandemic-forced delay of the Games from summer 2020 to kick-off this week actually helped the women grow even closer.

"I look at us now and I look at the connection that we've developed and the adversity that we've experienced together and how much better I know my teammates and what this means to them and what their family means to them, understanding those little things that make them tick, how much more I know them as people," Johnson continues. "And I'm just amazed, this process being an Olympic athlete, being a part of a team, you form such deep connections and I know that we're teammates, but we're going to be connected for life."

And though Johnson says she was "devastated" that her family won't be able to be in Japan to support her during the Games due to a ban on spectators, the athlete knows she has a support system in her teammates.

"What we have in the water, what we have in our rooms, what we have amongst our team, that's going to be there, that's going to be solid and we're continually looking for ways to build that out and be there for each other and know each other and just support each other, knowing that our families won't be there," she tells PEOPLE.

Johnson is one of several female athletes that Secret Deoderant is featuring as part of their "Just Watch Me" campaign, with her likeness appearing in a mural in Philadelphia, N.Y.C. and Atlanta.

"Having the support of P&G and Secret is amazing," she says. "Companies that empower women and especially prioritize representation in areas where women, people of color aren't typically represented is it's just a really cool effort and it's very much recognized, especially by me in my sport, being the first Black woman to have represented the U.S. on the Olympic stage in water polo. And I know how much it means to have that representation and also be without that representation."

To learn more about Team USA, visit TeamUSA.org. Watch the Tokyo Olympics beginning July 23rd and the Tokyo Paralympics beginning August 24th on NBC.