July 24, 2016

Having Dazzled as Goalie for PU Women’s Water Polo, Johnson Aims to Come Up Big for U.S. at Rio Games


NATIONAL DEFENSE: Ashleigh Johnson makes a save in action for the Princeton University women’s water polo team. Johnson, the program’s career leader in saves who took the 2015-16 school year off to train with the national team, will be competing for the U.S. squad next month at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

Ashleigh Johnson has firmly established herself as the greatest goalie in the history of the Princeton University women’s water polo team.

In her first three seasons with the Tigers, from 2013-2015, the Miami. Fla. native made a program-record 1,062 saves and has been a three-time All American.

Taking the 2015-16 school year off to train with the U.S. national team, Johnson has distinguished herself as one of the top goalies on earth.

Last summer, the 6’1” Johnson helped the U.S. win the world championship as it edged the Netherlands 5-4 in the title game. Johnson made 12 saves in the win, including a crucial penalty shot stop in the fourth period, and was named match MVP and the tournament’s top goalkeeper.

For Johnson, the individual accolades were a reflection of a team effort rather than her exploits.

“That was the biggest tournament I have ever played in,” said Johnson, who was later named 2015 Water Polo World Female Player of the Year.

“I think those awards are just a testament to the team and how much we committed to defense. Defense is all about funneling the ball to the goalie so our team has to be doing something right to make me look good.”

Next month, Johnson will be looking to star on the biggest stage in her sport as she competes for the U.S. at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

For Johnson, making the U.S. squad for the Olympics is the culmination of a  year of toil and support.

“It was amazing that all the work I have put in, that everyone behind me has put in, and the dream I had for myself and that my family, my coaches and my friends have had for me, come to realization,” said Johnson, who will be rejoining the Princeton team after the Olympics as she finishes up her college work.

“It was a really cool moment to be a part of this and have it happen in my life. I have been dreaming about it for so long.”

Joining the national program full-time after the end of the 2014-15 season with Princeton required Johnson to deal with a heavier workload.

“It has been hard; it is definitely a lot more hours than I was used to before, but once I got into a rhythm it was nice,” said Johnson, noting that the U.S. squad is based in Los Alamitos, Calif. near Long Beach.

“We have two sessions a day. It is six and a half hours a day; we get Sundays off. The morning session is usually weights and then pool and the afternoon session is usually all pool.”

Although Johnson was initially a bit of an outsider on the team as an east coast player on a roster dominated by Californians, she has fit in.

“Once I was out here, it didn’t feel like it took that long for me to be comfortable with everyone,” noted Johnson, the first African American player on the national team since the early 2000s.

“Everyone left their life to be part of this so we are all in the same position and we are willing to accept everyone no matter where they came from.”

Competing with the top U.S. players on a daily basis and battling the best international teams has helped Johnson focus on the fine points of her position.

“I definitely feel like I have developed skill-wise,” said Johnson. “I have tried to hone in on the things that make you a good goalie, relying on my legs more than my arms and working on little things on my game that were off and that I have to focus on to beat those better shooters.”

Excelling in a recent tune-up series with Hungary in Florida helped the U.S. squad continue to develop its confidence as it prepares for Rio.

“We won all three games,” said Johnson, noting that the U.S. will face Russia for a three-game series before heading to Brazil.

“We got to play in Miami. We went to my high school so my teammates from high school, a lot of my classmates, a lot of people and coaches from Florida water polo were there at our game. It was really cool. My team treats me as a representative of Florida and east coast polo. I definitely feel at home with east coast water polo.”

Johnson and her teammates are determined to not let issues over the Zika virus and crime they may encounter in Rio knock them off track.

“We have to be ready for our games and be in the best mental state possible,” added Johnson. “Those other things are definitely concerns for our friends and family who are going.”

With U.S. opening the match play phase of the Olympic tournament with a game against Spain on August 9, it will have to be ready to execute.

“We just need to stay focused on the things that we have been practicing this whole time and know what we have to do,” said Johnson.

“We need to scout other teams and know what they like to do so we are prepared for that. We need to be in that comfortable space mentally.”

Reflecting on the U.S. team’s progress over the last year, Johnson believes that it is prepared for a medal run in Rio.

“We have definitely grown together; I think part of what we didn’t have at world championships was little connections that makes things happen in a game,” said Johnson.

“I feel like we have really started to nail those down and we are learning how each other likes to play. It is really good to see.”