Ashleigh Johnson blocks a shot during the women's preliminary Group A match against Brazil at the Pan American Games Lima 2019 on Aug. 5, 2019 in Lima, Peru.
The U.S. women’s water polo team never stops striving for perfection, even though the squad has been close to perfect for such a long time.
One brilliant example of this happened at the Pan American Games Lima 2019 earlier this month in Peru. After the Americans defeated Canada for the gold medal, the players weren’t overly jubilant for winning their fifth consecutive Pan Am Games title or extending their winning streak to 59 games. Instead they analyzed their performance and shifted their focus on how to get better.
This was after they beat the Canadians 24-4.
“We’re never satisfied,” said goalkeeper Ashleigh Johnson. “Individually and as a team, we always set goals. I think it’s a pretty cool culture.”
Johnson embodies that mantra of pushing herself to become better the next day than she was before. It started when she first joined her high school water polo team in Miami. At first, Johnson played in the field while her sister, Chelsea, played goalkeeper. Ashleigh thought she could be a better goalie, so she began competing against her sister for the job.
“I’m super competitive and always thought I could do things better than anyone else,” Ashleigh said. “There was no way I would let my sister be better than me.”
Ashleigh won the spot and went on to star at Ransom Everglades High School, helping guide the Raiders to three state titles. From there she went on to Princeton, where she had a career record of 100 wins against just 17 losses. Chelsea, then playing in the field, joined her at Princeton as well.
Ashleigh has since shined bright on the international stage with Team USA, sandwiching 2015 and 2019 world titles with the 2016 Olympic gold medal in Rio. She also helped the team win consecutive FINA World Cups in 2014 and 2018, and three World League Super Final crowns (2016, 2018, 2019).
In each instance, the U.S. was extending a winning streak, as the team has now held every major championship in the sport for years.
Playing goalie on a team as dominant as the U.S. has left Johnson, now 24, rather lonely in the net, with her teammates scoring so often on the other end of the pool. When it comes time for her to rise up during the heat of battle, though, she doesn’t disappoint her team.
In that trouncing of Canada in the Pan American final, she had 17 saves. The Americans allowed just 24 goals in their six wins in Lima while scoring 142 goals.
In the FINA World Championships in July in South Korea, she had 14 saves in the final and was named MVP of the tournament. In three games at the FINA World League Super Final in June, she had 28 more saves en route to another Team USA championship.
As stellar as her stats are, Johnson credits the whole body of work by her teammates and coaches rather than any individual performances. She said what goes on behind the scenes — the work, the practices, the battles with teammates in the pool and the camaraderie outside of it — help the team orchestrate something so fluid.
“Sometimes we make the game look so beautiful, but there’s a lot of ugly, hard work that goes into making that happen,” she said.
The win over Canada was the 59th consecutive win for the Americans. It’s a streak that is rarely mentioned by a group of athletes more worried about their next game than what they’ve accomplished in the last 59.
“We don’t really hype over something like that,” Johnson said. “We go into each game and just focus on that opponent. We try to be our best every day, and that’s part of our culture. I have never been on a team this successful, but coach does a good job to keep us humble.”
Johnson has played professional water polo in Greece but never really got the chance to be a tourist while playing there. After the Pan American Games, she took a trip to see the sights and sounds where she played.
After a two-and-a-half week stint away from the game, she’ll be back in Long Beach, California, to train with her teammates for the upcoming season, which includes a shot at winning her second consecutive gold medal at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. The U.S. already qualified for Tokyo by winning this year’s World League Super Final.
With less than a year to go before the Olympics begin, preparations for the team’s third consecutive gold medal will soon be underway.
It means battling in practice against some of the best players in the world. It means working toward perfection, and building upon that streak that no one dares to mention.
“We try to strive and play the game the best we know how. We are so competitive within our team that our level rises every time we practice,” Johnson said. “None of the games we’ve played have been perfect. So we always have things we can work on to improve and be a more perfect team.”