ROAD TO RIO | Princeton’s Ashleigh Johnson leads dominant U.S. team to Games

Ashleigh Johnson, Princeton water polo goalie and Olympic hopeful. (Photo by Beverly Schaefer/Princeton University)

Originally published May 2, 2015.

For Ashleigh Johnson, life is all about balance. Classes at Princeton. The pool.  The Tigers’ water polo team. The U.S. national team.

“Balancing sports and academics here is really hard for me,” she said. “It’s kind of like, I don’t know, I’ve never had to work this hard in school and in water polo before. I like the challenge.”

Johnson, who was named Swimming World Magazine’s female water polo player of the year in January, somehow finds time to do it all — with a little help from her family.

“Having my sister here is so great,” she said of Chelsea, a freshman. “She’s a major point of support for me. I hang out with her all the time.”

But it’s more than her sister helping her stay on point in class. “The work ethic for me to balance sports and academics comes from my mom, really. Every day she calls me, checks up on me, pushes me and that really helps me.”

The Johnson sisters were pushed toward the pool early. “We learned to swim because he have a pool at home, but my mom wanted us to not be at home during the summer so we would go to a swim team behind my school,” Ashleigh said. “Our coach was like ‘You guys should all play water polo.’ And we liked that so much better than swimming we stuck with water polo and moved away from swimming.”

That advice has certainly paid off.

Ashleigh Johnson, Princeton water polo goalie and Olympic hopeful. (Photo by Beverly Schaefer/Princeton University)
Ashleigh Johnson, Princeton water polo goalie and Olympic hopeful. (Photo by Beverly Schaefer/Princeton University)

“I was actually really intimidated making the senior national team because I was playing on such a different level then I’m used to and I was playing with girls who are so intimidating, girls I’ve seen play in the Olympics,” Johnson said. “I was looking up to (them) my whole life and it was so amazing to meet them and play with them.

“I haven’t had that exact moment yet, like ‘I really belong here’ but I’ve had a moment where I’ve been like ‘I can actually compete on this level.’ I’m in a game with the senior national team and I think ‘I can block these balls; I can keep up.’”

Johnson earned a spot on the senior USA Water Polo team in goal, where she was named top goalkeeper at the 2014 FINA World Cup. On March 28, Johnson made a school-record 22 saves as Princeton beat George Washington, 14-5. She made 17 saves as the Tigers ousted defending national champion Indiana, 7-6, in the CWPA championship. Johnson also surpassed CWPA Hall of Fame inductee Goga Vukmirovic (990) for the most career saves in program history (1,003). She is the only player in Princeton women’s water polo history to stop at least 1,000 shots.

She made nine saves in Princeton’s 12-2 victory over Wagner y in the NCAA Tournament play-in game. The Tigers advanced to the tournament quarterfinal where they lost to Stanford, 7-2, and lost to UC Irvine in the fifth-place game, 6-5.

But Johnson has another goal in mind: “The Olympics are definitely something I would like to be a part of one day.

“In the fall, I’ve been going back and forth between (Princeton) and California to do training trips and little mini tournaments. And it’s been hard, but I would really like to go to the Olympics. “Winning a medal would be the most amazing thing, but I can’t even think about that right now, because I have to focus on the little things that we have to do to get there, but that would be unimaginable.”

Sean Loughlin

Sean Loughlin is a freelance producer based in New York City.