Ashleigh Johnson competes for Princeton's women's water polo team against Harvard.
Water polo is dominated by the West Coast. From the youth level to the NCAA, the California connections in the sport are undeniable. No team that’s competed in the NCAA men’s or women’s water polo championship game has been from outside of the Golden State.
But that doesn’t mean there is a lack of talent in the rest of the country. Just ask Olympic gold medalist and Princeton alumna Ashleigh Johnson.
“I didn’t really have this perspective when I was going into it, but now, I realize that my mindset was I will be me wherever I go,” Johnson said. “I just didn’t want someone else to dictate who I was before I knew it. I've always wanted balance in my life and career and Princeton was where I thought I could achieve that.”
And that’s what she did.
Johnson, who had scholarship offers from California schools, chose the Ivy League school in New Jersey and helped the Princeton Tigers to two College Water Polo Association conference titles, two NCAA women’s water polo championship bids, became the program’s all-time leader in saves (1,362) and notched 100 career victories. And the cherry on top - she got to compete with her younger sister, Chelsea, who was also a member of the team.
“I wasn’t making the decision for college strictly based off of water polo, so I wasn’t looking at teams’ past history, so it wasn’t that big of a deal for me that we were going to NCAAs,” Johnson said. “I expected to be there; I was expecting to win every game I go into; I just want to compete, and I thought our team should be there.”
Johnson is no stranger to doing her thing and making history along the way. In 2016, the Miami, Florida native became the first Black woman to represent the United States in Olympic water polo.
“I want to be that person that little Black girls and little Black boys can look up to and see themselves and have that dream, and want to compete with me, want to compete against me and want to beat me,” She said. “I think that’s so cool when a little kid looks at me and is like, ‘I want to play against you one day, and I'm going to win.’”
Johnson got a treat when last December the USA Water Polo Women’s National Team hosted the 2019 Holiday Cup at Princeton.
“We never play anywhere that I call home, so that was really cool to get to show my teammates all the places that I hung out on campus,” she said, “My Princeton experience is most of my teammates’ perception of the East Coast, so I got to show them what I know about New Jersey and Princeton and it was very special.”
In a sport like water polo that heavily relies on the collegiate pipeline, Johnson credits her time at Princeton with helping her gain the necessary skills to compete at the highest level.
“For me I know at the collegiate level is where I really found my identity as an athlete, but also my identity as an athlete and something else – as a person,” she said. “It's one of the highest levels of water polo that you can pursue. You work your whole life becoming this incredible teammate, athlete and friend, and water polo is the place where those things converge; your hard work, effort and getting the opportunity to pursue you as an athlete and as a person at the highest level for you. For a lot of people that’s the collegiate level, and it’s an unmeasurable opportunity.”
At one point during her collegiate career, Johnson was frequently flying from New Jersey to California to participate in training camps and serve her national team duties.
“The environment was very difficult; I had to create a structure for myself that I could operate through,” she said. “I think that pressure that I had to develop those skills, those are the things that I carry with me today. I developed them in a pressure cooker, and I had to develop them to survive and reach my goals, but those are the skills that I'm most confident about myself today.”