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“I wouldn’t give up water polo unless I really was forced to. It’s my outlet from everything,” says Maddy Johnston, University of Michigan star

She was only two months old at the time, but Maddy Johnston was already in her element — the swimming pool. The San Francisco native joked that she initially floated and blew bubbles during her lessons, but fast forward 20 years, and she is now a vital member of the Michigan Wolverines Water Polo team.

Those two decades have not been smooth sailing for Johnston however. Indeed, from a young age, she was diagnosed with dysnomia, a learning disability that makes it difficult to remember names or recall words from memory.

But, when she plays water polo she feels liberated, she told the Sports Gazette.

Johnston said: “It takes my mind away from everything else and I can just focus on the game, even when you’re ‘resting’ in the pool you are still staying afloat or eggbeater-ing, so you’re always using energy, getting the endorphins going. I always feel good after and it can be pretty fun to play a physical sport.”

Maddy Johnston, University of Michigan

Prior to water polo, Johnston was a swimmer, but for her, “swimming included staring at a black line” which she did not enjoy, whereas she loves water polo because,”it includes swimming, wrestling and scoring on a cage like soccer, and exclusions/power plays like hockey.”

Johnston’s decision to switch to water polo was a terrific one, because she is a talented player. She won gold at the 2015 Pan American Games in Kingston, Jamaica. In 2015 and 2016, she competed for the USA Youth National Team, and at the 2016 Youth World Championships in Auckland, New Zealand she finished fifth.

Unfortunately for Johnston, a severe injury as a freshman at Michigan have diminished her chances of moving up through the national team’s pipeline to the senior teams.

She recalls tearing her UCL — ulnar collateral ligament — in her elbow. “I was in the middle of a counter attack and I got tangled up with this one girl, and she pushed my elbow up and in, as if you were to try and touch your elbow to your opposite ear.”

Johnston has also suffered a couple of concussions in her life, a common occurrence in the sport. “Normally it’s an elbow or the ball from someone’s shot,” she explained.

In addition to having dysnomia, Johnston also suffers from depression and is currently being tested for ADD (attention deficit disorder.)

She said: “Doctors are thinking it wasn’t diagnosed earlier because depression was in combination with that.”

While water polo helps her escape from those daily troubles, she still faces judgement from people around her. “Since I’ve been through a lot most people know more than a few titbits, but a few see it as offering up excuses to be special or to receive certain attention.”

Maddy Johnston — bottom row, far left — and USA won gold at the Jamaican Youth Pan American Games in 2015.

“It’s hard to explain yourself though — and sometimes you shouldn’t have to — when around your teammates and friends and stuff like that.”

“It’s like constantly having to explain yourself or else rumours get spread from those that don’t know you that well about not putting in hard work or having different priorities and stuff like that — but if you were to describe me in one word it’d be persevering.”

Just an example of her perseverance, Johnston continued to play with her torn elbow for two months last year to help Michigan qualify for the NCAA tournament.

Johnston, just like her teammates, spends 20 hours a week training before travelling on weekends for games, while having to remain on top of her academics.

Johnston is majoring in movement science, and she finds it an arduous task to balance academics and sports, but she is thankful to be at Michigan.

“I’m forever grateful for Michigan because they’ve totally helped me with my [mental health] so it no longer affects me on a day to day basis,” she said.

Maddy Johnston playing in high school for Sacred Heart Preparatory School in Atherton, California

Ironically, Johnston did not plan on accepting her offer from Michigan at first.

“I got numerous offers from schools, but the only reason why I decided to even visit Michigan was because my national team coach [Marcelo Leonardi] was/is the coach at Michigan. I didn’t want to visit because I was ignorant, but my parents said because he was my coach, I owed him at least a visit.”

“I loved it instantly, I had no idea what to expect and It was immediately amazing”

Johnston’s next games are on February 2nd and February 3rd in Palo Alto, California when Michigan takes on Stanford, UC Davis, China and Pacific in the Stanford Invitational.

Featured photograph/Maddy Johnston

Thomas Kaiser
Thomas Kaiser is French, but he spent the majority of his childhood between London, Paris, and New York City. He speaks French and English fluently, and some Spanish. Thomas studied Sociology and Media Studies at the University of Virginia. He is currently doing a Masters Program in International Sports Journalism at St Mary’s University. Thomas follows numerous sports across Europe and the United States. He has a passion for football (Arsenal Season ticket holder), tennis, the NBA, the MLB and college basketball. However, Thomas also has a strong appreciation for smaller market sports such as alpine skiing, biathlon, track & field, swimming, or cycling. While writing for the SportsGazette, Thomas wants to share stories of athletes from smaller market sports.
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