"I feel like being an elite athlete has helped me learn to pivot," Ashleigh Johnson tells PEOPLE

By Lindsay Kimble
July 23, 2020 11:38 AM
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Ashleigh Johnson
Ralph Lauren

Ashleigh Johnson's years of training as an elite athlete have taught her how to adapt and overcome the unexpected. And the unexpected in 2020 was the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics.

"It's the one thing that you think is never going to be moved," the Olympic water polo player tells PEOPLE while opening up about partnering with Polo Ralph Lauren to model the brand's One-Year-Out Olympic Collection. "The one thing that we worked towards for the full four years, and then we're like, 'Olympic games set in stone.' It was a huge blow, but also I personally was able to grieve that, felt the blow, grieved it. Then I feel like being an elite athlete has helped me learn to pivot."

The Polo Ralph Lauren One-Year-Out Collection, launching Thursday, includes 32 pieces and will support the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee’s (USOPC) Team USA Fund. Twenty-five percent of the purchase price of each unit from the collection will go to the Team USA Fund, which supports athletes in their journeys to the games — especially necessary during this extra year of training.

Johnson, 25, says she "pivoted" and was able to "rephrase ... and reframe" the Games postponement due to Coronavirus to see it as a positive.

"You almost never get the opportunity to reengage, re-push yourself again, push yourself harder," she continues. "I felt like I was getting close to my best when we were about to shut down, but I just think this is a cool opportunity to get closer to my team, to rethink who I am as an athlete and push towards new goals and set those new goals."

The athlete, who was part of the gold medal-winning 2016 U.S. women's water polo Olympic team, does admit it was "daunting" to think about training for another year.

"Even though it's challenging, even though it's physically and mentally really, really difficult, I know it's where I thrive," the athlete says. "It's where I'm most happy."

Johnson and the rest of the women's Olympic water polo team began training together again over a month ago she says, and have been focused on distance training in smaller groups. The team has also spent time talking about the mental toll of the postponement: "We've really been prioritizing mental health."

The athlete has also continued to push for other Black women to pursue aquatic sports, noting that she's the first African American woman to compete for the U.S. on the Olympic stage in water polo.

"It's been a huge honor and responsibility for me to represent Black women in our sport, be an advocate for Black women in our sport and also drive to bring more people of color into our sport, make our sport a safe space and a safe place for young people of color to get all of the opportunity that I've been able to get through water polo," she explains.

"I'm doing what I can right now, but it's really, really cool to see our community come together and start ... making change and taking actionable steps to change what our sport looks like."

The Polo Ralph Lauren One-Year-Out Collection will be available for purchase through Instagram Checkout on the athletes’ and brands’ handles, as well as on Ralphlauren.com and select Ralph Lauren retail stores.