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Bruins in Paris

Senior signoff: Ava Johnson reflects on water polo legacy, academic success

Graduate student Ava Johnson lines up for a shot. In her fifth season with UCLA women’s water polo, Johnson had eleven multi-goal games. (Brandon Morquecho/Assistant Photo editor)

By Ava Johnson

June 11, 2023 8:17 p.m.

In eighth grade, my English teacher asked me to write a letter to myself and make a prediction about where I would go to college. I did not hesitate to write that I would be attending UCLA. When she returned the letter to me four years later, I was overjoyed to confirm that my childhood dream had come true. I cannot tell you exactly how or why I knew UCLA would be my destination, but at the age of 13 I just knew, and the rest is history.

In the fall of 2018, I arrived at UCLA as a 17-year-old student-athlete ready to join a historic women’s Division I water polo team. I was honored to follow the legacy of water polo greats that came before me, but the physical, mental and emotional demands of the athletic and academic standards at UCLA put me to the test. I will forever be grateful to my UCLA support network for helping me make the transition and thrive in my new home.

My five years at UCLA have been about so much more than water polo. My experience has been enriched by associating with some of the most inspirational students and professors, as well as organizations like the UCLA Chancellor’s Society, True Bruin Traditions Keepers and the Wooden Academy. I have learned that becoming a champion is about far more than just wins and losses. It’s about character, grit, tenacity, and service to others.

Thank you to everyone in the UCLA Athletic Department, including Kenny Donaldson, Ric Coy, Melinda Kirschner, trainers, weight coaches, psychologists, academic counselors and staff for keeping me strong, healthy, sane and studious.

Thank you to Gary Segura at the Luskin School of Public Affairs for paving the way for undergraduate students like me to attain a graduate degree in transformative coaching and leadership. I will always cherish being a pioneer in the program.

Thank you to Amy Gershon, Professor Pelikhova, Professor Amlani, Sue Enquist, Annamarie Francois and Miss Val in the transformative leadership and coaching master’s program for encouraging me to be a better leader and teacher to those who seek to achieve the top of Wooden’s pyramid.

Champions are made here at UCLA because of your commitment to academic and athletic excellence. I would not be the accomplished Bruin I am today without your passion and influence.

It’s now 2023 and I am 22 years old. I am leaving UCLA a 3-time All-American and U.S. Women’s Senior National Team World Champion. I owe a debt of gratitude to one of my all-time favorite coaches, Adam Wright. You believed in me when I doubted myself. Your wisdom and expertise made me physically and mentally stronger as a person and player. Thank you for never giving up on me.

I also want to give a special thanks to Jason Falitz, James Robinson, Chris Lee and Kodi Hill for building me up and catching me when I fell. I know I am a better person because of your investment in my growth and development. I hope I made you proud.

To the toughest and bravest teammates in the athletic world: We have laughed and cried our way through the highs and the lows of our time together and we are stronger, better and more resilient for it. Keep fighting and bring home that natty!

I hope I have touched a few lives and left a few marks during my time in The Den. To be a champion is to know a champion.

Go Bruins!


Ava Johnson
Women’s Water Polo #13

Johnson played for UCLA women’s water polo from 2018-2023.

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