As a water polo goalkeeper, Ashleigh Johnson tries to bat away whatever comes toward her in the pool.
Except last summer.
While Team USA trained for its gold-medal-winning performance at the 2017 world championships in Budapest, Hungary, Johnson was coaxing kids to jump into her arms as part of a “learn to swim” program.
Of course, she caught them.
“It took a little bit of convincing,” Johnson said of getting the kids to jump.
But her easy smile, encouragement and stature as a gold medalist from the Olympic Games Rio 2016 won them over.
“By the end of the summer, those kids were comfortable jumping into our arms,” Johnson said. “They couldn’t fully swim because it was only a few weeks, but they just were much more comfortable in the water. It was really, really fun to see that transformation.”
The Johnson Sisters Swim Program for Breakthrough Miami, which she created with her sister Chelsea (who is also a water polo player), attracted 144 children. They plan to continue the program, an offshoot of an established academic enrichment program in their hometown, even though Ashleigh will only pop in when she can now that she has rejoined Team USA.
Johnson’s back – wearing the No. 1 cap – in time for the 2018 FINA World League Super Final, which begins Monday in Kunshan, China. Team USA has won the event a record 11 times, including the last four, and this will be a major test in the run-up to the Tokyo 2020 Games.
What did Johnson miss about being with Team USA?
“Everything,” she said. “I missed the girls. I missed the competitive environment. Playing water polo here is like playing nowhere else. It’s like a family – a really competitive family. When you’re in it, you’re lucky to be a part of it, and you realize that every day because you get to be around these strong, amazing women.”
And yet Johnson, 23, needed the break from the team, even though she continued playing water polo.
“I think I was just mentally and physically exhausted,” Johnson said. “When you’re in it full-time, it takes a lot out of you, and I felt like I needed time.”
Making A Mark At The Olympic Games
In Rio, she was a star player for Team USA, recording 51 saves en route to the gold medal. As the first African-American woman to compete for the U.S. Olympic team in water polo, Johnson also established herself as a role model in her country and around the world.
After the Games, Johnson returned to Princeton University, where she played alongside Chelsea for her final season. Johnson won the 2017 Cutino Award honoring the best collegiate water polo player, graduated with a degree in psychology and joined a professional league in Italy.
Johnson has only competed with Team USA once since Rio, in an exhibition series in December. She was not in the cage when Team USA won the gold medal at the FINA Intercontinental Tournament earlier this spring in Auckland, New Zealand, because of her professional commitments. Johnson’s team, Catania, placed second in the Italian league and third in the European league.
She arrived in Los Alamitos, California, last week refreshed and recharged.
“I feel like I have a new perspective on who I am as a player and what I want,” Johnson said. “That was really important for me.”
So who is she as a player and what does she want?
Johnson laughed. “It’s not that easy to explain. It’s like a feeling. I just want to be present. I want to be myself, what I’ve always been, but you just lose sight of who you are along the way sometimes.”
Coach Adam Krikorian said he never pushed Johnson to play with Team USA in 2017 because he knew she needed the time away.
“Of course, I wanted her back,” he said, “but everyone has to make the choice on their own to be here. It’s such a tough sport. There’s so much time that’s required, so much energy is required to be the best, that your heart needs to be into it.”
Krikorian said Johnson’s situation was different from that of her teammates because they were Californians, whose homes weren’t that far from the training camp, while she was the lone Floridian.
“She spent the last year and a half of the Olympic cycle away from her home, away from her family,” he said. “She went almost straight from the Olympic Games to her last year at Princeton without much of a break, and so I think that took a toll on her. It was important for her to step away, find the meaning in what she was dong and find the love again, and it was important that we all let her take that time. She’s got a renewed sense of purpose and energy and I think that will only help her play to a higher level.”
Confidence In the Cage
At 6-foot-1, Johnson is known for her athleticism as well as her knack for anticipating her opponents’ moves. She had 66 saves as Team USA won the 2015 FINA World Championship, where she was named top goalkeeper and MVP of the gold-medal match.
“When she’s at her best, she is certainly one of the best in the game,” Krikorian said. “She’s got a very unique explosiveness to her that allows her in a split second to lunge to a ball and cover most of the goal, and she has just an incredible hand-eye coordination. Her ability to read the shooter and see the ball come off someone’s hand and react in milliseconds to that ball is just something that’s unteachable. We can train, it and improve it just a tad but a lot of it is just natural God-given ability.”
The goalkeeper not only has to block shots and protect the cage, she is also responsible for running the defense for her team.
“I really like the mental aspect of being a goalkeeper,” Johnson said. “I think it’s like a puzzle that you’re always trying to solve. You can see the lanes that the shooters can see and you have to communicate what’s open for the defense while things are changing constantly.”
And yet Johnson’s skill in the pool is only one facet of what she brings to Team USA.
“Just from a personality standpoint, I probably miss her as an individual more than I miss her athletic ability,” Krikorian said. “She’s really a selfless kid who brings a smile every single day to training, and she’s just fun to be around. In this competitive, grueling environment, it’s wonderful to have people that bring some life and just a fresh outlook and a smile every day.
“When people hear me say she’s different or she brings some diversity to the group, most people would think about the color of her skin, but I’m not referring to that one bit. She just has a unique personality. She’s got a sense of humor that is sometimes really difficult to figure out. She keeps you on edge – you never know whether she’s serious or whether she’s kidding.”
Johnson laughed hearing her coach’s take on her sense of humor.
“I’m glad he appreciates that,” she said. “I like to just say things and let them soak in a little bit. I’m sarcastic. It breaks up the tension a little bit because it’s a very, very competitive and fun environment.”
Fighting For Roster Spots
Now that she’s back with the team, that competition is intensified since there are three goalkeepers vying for two spots. Gabby Stone is also on the trip to China, while Amanda Longan is the other contender at the position.
Most tournaments allow teams to carry 13 players, but there will be only 11 at the Tokyo Olympic Games because of the increase in the number of nations on the women’s side from eight to 10.
In another change, the sport will begin testing a new rule at the end of the summer that is similar to ice hockey in allowing a goalie to move past the halfway point and be involved in the offense.
Johnson is excited to give that a try. “I used to play field when I was younger – I think all goalies did,” she said, “and it seems like an interesting idea.”
Her teammates know she has the speed. Sometimes Johnson will jump in a team sprint and crush everyone.
“For those grinders on our team,” Krikorian said, “and we have a few who really have to work their tails off for every ounce that they get, to see someone just come in and not train – and when swimming isn’t even required from a goalkeeper’s standpoint – and beat everyone on the team, it’s frustrating.”
At a training camp in Colorado Springs, Colorado, some of the players tried to climb a rope hanging from a catwalk into the pool with middling success.
“Ashleigh gives it a shot, and literally within 10 seconds, she’s all the way up at the top, hits the catwalk and falls in the water,” Krikorian said. “I think everyone just started splashing and booing her at the same time. It was just so frustrating to see someone with so much athletic ability do it so easily and gracefully.”
Inspiring Athletes Around The World
She has taken on her position as a role model with ease and grace as well.
“One of the reasons why we all love her so much is that she doesn’t love the attention very much to be honest," Krikorian said. “She’s a very selfless person. She would rather just kind of blend in with the team, but with that being said, I think she’s grown to understand and to appreciate and to take pride in the role that she does play in inspiring not just young African-American athletes, but people from all colors and races and genders.
“She understands that she has a bigger role than just the role she plays within our team.”
Johnson said she hears from parents who tell her that their daughter has started to learn to swim or decided to try water polo.
“Because of who I am, I’m an example of people who aren’t well-represented in our sport, and that’s really important to me,” she said. “But a lot of the other focus, like people saying ‘Oh, they’re the best,’ I kind of tune out, because I don’t think it’s really important to my journey or pertinent to what I want to do.”
Even though Team USA is the favorite in the Super Final – as well as in every event it plays due to its dominance the last few years – Johnson said she considers all of her teams the underdog.
“That’s just how I think as a player,” she said.
Ranked No. 1 in the world, Team USA opens up against Japan on Monday and will also play Canada and Russia in group play. The tournament concludes June 2.
“Every time there’s a new quad, you start from zero and you have to build yourself up,” Johnson said, “so you can’t really think about improving on the last Olympic experience. You’re thinking about building up every day and just getting better.”
And with her smile and humor, she’ll continue to bring the sunshine to Team USA on the road to Tokyo.
After all, said Krikorian, “She is from the Sunshine State.”