Ashleigh Johnson learned to swim because her mother bought a house with a pool, and then worried about her children around the pool, so she immediately signed them up for lessons at the local community center.
Ashleigh’s siblings, three brothers and a sister, often wanted to do another sport besides swimming, such as gymnastics, but Donna Johnson, as a single mom, had her hands full. She told her kids they all had to do the same sport, and that was swimming. Sometimes she had to tease them with a wooden spoon to get them to go.
But the kids did like what came after each lesson — their coach let them play water polo.
“It was just fun for them and they loved it,” Donna Johnson said. “And if you paid for the lessons, the water polo was free.”
From that meager beginning in a Miami community pool, Johnson has become one of the top goalkeepers on the U.S. women’s water polo senior national team. At 20 years old, she is already recognized internationally, having been named the top goalkeeper at the 2013 FINA Junior World Championships and the 2014 FINA World Cup. At both, the U.S. team won gold.
This week Johnson is one of two U.S. goalkeepers in Shanghai, as the United States competes in the FINA World League Super Final. The Americans opened with a 16-3 win against Brazil on Tuesday, when Johnson had 12 saves. The tournament continues through Sunday.
“Ashleigh is one of the most athletically-gifted goalkeepers this sport has ever seen,” U.S. coach Adam Krikorian said. “She has a long wing span, explosive legs and tracks the ball well off of her opponents shooting hand.
“She is bright and very happy-go-lucky. But our athletes probably know her the least, since she grew up in Miami and far away from every other player on our team.”
With a roster full of players from California, all of whom attend or attended western colleges, Johnson is still making her way in.
“I think I am closer to that moment of feeling like I belong on this team, but I think that that moment will be most salient outside of the water, in moments where I bond with my teammates before I experience it in the water,” Johnson said.
Johnson is Jamaican, and the only black player to be on a U.S. senior national team since the early 2000s. Johnson said being black in a predominately white sport hasn’t been an issue. Her sister, Chelsea, also plays water polo, and the two have played together on teams most of their life. Chelsea is a freshman at Princeton, where Ashleigh just finished her junior year.
“When I was younger and playing water polo, I don’t think I experienced any sort of special treatment (good or bad) because of my race,” Ashleigh Johnson said. “My coach, Carroll Vaughn, didn’t make race a factor in any of her decisions to push me or any of her players to pursue higher levels of water polo, and neither did my mom when she pushed me to try my best.
“Even though I was usually not the only black person on my team (because of my sister), I was aware of the lack of African-American people in the sport. The most salient experience of my race in terms of water polo came when I was younger and in middle school, and I would be going to practice and my friends assumed I couldn’t swim; I’d only heard that a few times on TV and I thought it was an outdated stereotype, but I couldn’t have been more proud to disprove it.”
Johnson is used to winning. At Ransom Everglades School in Miami, her high school team won three consecutive Florida state championships. At Princeton, Johnson became the only player in the school’s history to stop at least 1,000 shots. Even in elementary school, kids would stop to watch her when she did pull-ups.
“Ashleigh would just keep going and going until she realized the other kids were watching,” Donna Johnson said.
In high school, after Johnson won the Florida state title in the 50-meter freestyle, her mom finally let her quit swimming, but she never wanted to quit water polo. As a senior, Johnson was heavily recruited in water polo, including by Cal, USC, Michigan and Princeton.
“I chose Princeton because of the opportunities that my family and I thought that I would get, to excel at water polo and challenge myself academically,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s major is psychology, with her favorite subject childhood psychopathology. Last fall, Johnson traveled from Princeton to California on some weekends for training and small tournaments, and she found it difficult to balance schoolwork and the demands of the national team.
“I get a lot of my work and preparation for the week done (on the weekends), so I ended up learning to get my work done on long plane rides,” she said.
This fall, Johnson plans to take the year off from Princeton and live in California to train with the national team as it prepares to qualify and hopefully compete at the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games. She plans to return to Princeton for her senior year.
All this, because her mother bought a house with a pool.
“My mom is the person that I look up to most in this world,” Johnson said. “Even though she never played a sport, she taught me hard work and perseverance in the way that she raised me and my four siblings. She’s the best.”
Maryann Hudson is a freelance writer from the Houston area. She was previously an investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times. She has written for TeamUSA.org since 2012 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.