BRIDGEPORT, Pa. — 2017 Princeton University alumna/2017 Cutino Award recipient/current United States Women’s National Team goalie Ashleigh Johnson was interviewed for an August 26 story on TeamUSA.org by Elizabeth Wyman that details her college selection and the choice of Princeton has helped her on the US National Team.
The 2019 Swimming World Female Water Polo Player of the Year and a four-time Player of the Year selection during the decade of 2010-to-2019, the 2017 Princeton graduate has been arguably the best water polo player on the planet as she helped her squad capture gold at the 2019 FINA Worlds.
One of only two Princeton athletes ever to win an Olympic gold medal (in 2016) and then come back to compete for the Tigers (Bill Bradley was the other), Johnson won the C. Otto von Kienbusch and Cutino Awards during her senior season in 2017. She was the first player in Princeton women’s water polo history to be named first team All-America and third ever to be selected All-America in each of her four seasons. Johnson finished her Princeton career with a 100-17 record, along with a school-record 1,362 saves and a .693 save percentage. She was a 19-time Collegiate Water Polo Association (CWPA) Defensive Player of the Week award winner, a four-time first-team all-conference player and the CWPA Player of the Year.
The text of the story follows:
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.”