August 11, 2021

PU Great Johnson Earns 2nd Gold with Water Polo, Bird Takes 9th in Steeplechase, Sets British Record

GOLDEN AGE: Ashleigh Johnson looks to pass the ball during her career with the Princeton University women’s water polo team. Last Saturday, superstar goalie Johnson helped the U.S. women’s national team win the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics, making 11 saves as the U.S. defeated Spain 14-5 in the final. It was the third straight gold for the U.S. and the second for Johnson, who helped the squad prevail at the 2016 Rio Olympics. (Photo by Beverly Schaefer, provided courtesy of Princeton’s Office of Athletic Communications)

By Bill Alden

When Ashleigh Johnson was being recruited to play water polo in college, she shied away from heading west to play for one of the powerhouses of the game.

Instead, the Miami, Fla. native, who wanted to be a doctor, headed north to Princeton University where she could play the sport, not major in it.

Johnson emerged as a superstar for the Tigers in her freshman year in 2012-13, earning third-team All-American honors as she made 366 saves and had a .688 save percentage to help Princeton go 28-6. Building on that debut campaign, Johnson continued to dominate the next two seasons, adding more All-American honors and the CWPA Player of the Year award to her resume.

As a result of her exploits, Johnson started getting recruited by the U.S. national women’s team but she had her doubts about joining the program.

She didn’t want to be based on the west coast and was leery of the time commitment involved in playing for the team.

But with a push from her Princeton coach Luis Nicolao and U.S coach Adam Krikorian, Johnson decided to give it a shot and, like her college career, she emerged as a dominant force.

Johnson became the team’s top goalie and the first Black player to compete for the program. She helped the U.S. win the 2015 FINA World Championship, making 66 saves in the tourney, earning the Top Goalkeeper award and Gold Medal Match MVP.

In 2016, the 6’1 Johnson stood tall as the U.S. rolled to the gold medal at the Rio Olympics, making 51 saves in the tournament.

She returned to Princeton for her senior year in 2016-17, making All-American and ending up as the program’s all-time leader in saves (1,362) and career victories (100).

After graduation, she resumed her international career, helping the U.S. to a slew of titles, including first place finishes in the 2019 World Championships and Pan American Games.

Last Saturday (Eastern Time) at the Tokyo Olympics, Johnson added another title to her resume, starring as the U.S. routed Spain 14-5 in the gold medal match to win its third straight Olympic title. Johnson was at her imposing best in the final contest, making 11 saves on 15 shots.

After the win, Johnson, 26, told reporters that the triumph was a fitting culmination of a roller-coaster ride since 2016.

“These past five years did mean a lot — and still do mean a lot — to me and to my team,” said Johnson, who held Spain scoreless in the third quarter.

“And throughout all of the adversity that we faced, we felt strong together. I’m glad that we showed up in this moment together because it’s just a reflection of all of the things that we’ve been through and all of the love and effort that we’ve all individually put in together and come together as a group to show the world today.”

In reflecting on the performance against Spain, Johnson saw it as the ultimate group effort.

“Just looking at how we scored, how we blocked, every single person had a contribution to this win, had a contribution to this whole journey and that’s a reflection of our team environment,” added Johnson.

“Everyone’s going to contribute, everyone’s going to do their best, everyone’s going to bring it in the moment that it matters, and that’s just really cool to be a part of.”

Johnson’s teammate, Maddie Musselman, credited the star goalie with having a major impact all over the pool.

“Her presence, you can feel it, even when you’re on offense,” said Musselman, as quoted in the New York Times. “You hear her voice everywhere you are.”

In the wake of her achievement, Johnson became only the fifth Princeton athlete/alumni to be a multi-time gold medalist, joining a group featuring Karl T. Frederick ’03 (shooting), Herman Whilton ’26 (sailing), Nelson Diebel ’87 (swimming), and Caroline Lind ’06 (rowing). It marked the 62nd medal for Princeton athletes at the Olympics and 19th gold medal.

While Johnson is proud of her Tiger lineage, she is looking to extend her influence to many constituencies.

“Every single person on our team represents their own community, represents their own group, and we carry that very seriously,” said Johnson, noting that she represents Miami, people of color in aquatics, and women in addition to the U.S. team.

“We carried that into this game, we carry that into every game. I’m just so proud to represent who I represent today. I hope they watch that, I hope they see themselves where we are.”

Three days earlier, Johnson’s classmate Lizzie Bird ’17 proved to be someone to watch as she competed for Great Britain in the final of the women’s 3,000-meter steeplechase.

Becoming the first British woman to make the Olympic final in the event, Bird, a native of St. Albans Herts, England, finished ninth overall and her time of 9:19.68 broke her previous national record of 9:22.80, set at the Monaco Diamond League Meet on July 12.

In her heat on July 31, Bird had finished fifth with a time of 9:24.24 to earn a spot in the final.

During her Princeton career, Bird excelled at a number of events. She was an NCAA Honorable Mention All-America honoree in the steeplechase in 2015 and was a four-time NCAA Regional qualifier in the event. She was a two-time Ivy League champion in the steeplechase and part of the 4×800 team that won a conference title in 2017.

In addition, Bird was also a NCAA Cross Country participant in 2015 and 2013 along with being an Ivy League cross country champion in 2015. She currently holds the indoor school record in the mile along with top-five times in the steeplechase, the 3,000, the 4×800, the 4×1,500, and a top-10 time in the 1,500.

Bird became the second Princeton women’s track & field alumna to earn a top-10 finish at the Olympics last week, as Julia Ratcliffe ’17, representing New Zealand, finished ninth in the hammer throw on August 3 with a best throw of 72.69 meters. Anita Wlodarczyk of Poland won the gold with a heave of 78.48 with Wang Zheng of China coming in second at 77.03 and Malwina Kopron of Poland placing third in 75.49.