U.S. women start charge for third straight water polo gold with blowout win over Japan

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The United States women’s water polo team, defending Olympic champions from both London and Rio, handily defeated Japan, 25-4, in the first of four preliminary round games.

Japan, competing in its first Olympic tournament, got off to an encouraging start in the first quarter, drawing level with the U.S. at 3-3. From that point on, though, the world’s top-ranked team took total control.

The U.S. scored 13 unanswered goals to close out the first half. Goalkeeper Ashleigh Johnson kept a perfect second quarter, saving every Japanese shot on her net. She finished the game with 15 total saves on 19 attempts.

Ashley Johnson, who at the 2016 Olympics became the first African American to play for the women’s water polo team, is juggling her role in and out of the water. On Saturday she had 15 saves, and the day before made it clear she wants to inspire others.

“My message to young girls who might be singled out because of their race and might be trying to reach a really big goal is that the thing that makes you different is something that makes you unique, special and inspirational,’’ she said. “And it took me a long time to realize that.’’

Team USA goalkeeper Ashleigh Johnson (1) makes a save against Team Japan centre forward Miku Koide (6) during the fourth quarter in the preliminary round Group B match during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tatsumi Water Polo Centre.
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© Sports Team USA goalkeeper Ashleigh Johnson (1) makes a save against Team Japan centre forward Miku Koide (6) during the fourth quarter in the preliminary round Group B match during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tatsumi Water Polo Centre.

On Saturday, the Americans looked like their badass selves, routing Japan 25-4 at the Tatsumi Water Polo Centre in the first of their four preliminary round games. Nine players scored for the Americans.

“There’s a ton of inspiring stories on our team… because of the type of people these women are,’’ Krikorian said during that opening press conference a day before his team’s game against Japan.

–Maggie Steffens, who is the active scoring leader in Olympic competition with 43 goals, scored five more on Saturday. She needs just five more goals to overtake Italy’s Tania Di Mario, now retired, as the all-time scoring leader in Olympic competition.

“To be honest, I did not know that at all until actually I got asked that question,’’ she said. “…I would say water polo still has some work to do in tracking down history.’’

The Americans are primed to make history as the first three-peat Olympic champions.

Ashleigh Johnson

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Ashleigh Johnson
Personal information
Nationality American
Born September 12, 1994 (age 26)
Miami, Florida
Height 6 ft 1 in (185 cm)[1]
Sport
Country
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United States
Sport Water polo
Position Goalkeeper
College team Princeton University
Medal record
Olympic Games
Gold medal – first place
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2016 Rio de Janeiro Team
World Championships
Gold medal – first place
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2015 Kazan Team
Gold medal – first place
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2019 Gwangju Team
Pan American Games
Gold medal – first place
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2019 Lima Team

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Ashleigh Johnson (born September 12, 1994) is an American water polo player and by many considered to be the best goalkeeper in the world. She was part of the American team winning the gold medal at the 2015 World Aquatics Championships. In 2016, she became the first African-American woman to make the US Olympic team in water polo. She was part of the gold-medal winning 2016 U.S. women’s water polo Olympic team.

Johnson was raised by her mother, Donna Johnson. Johnson grew up with four siblings (three brother and one sister), all of whom play water polo. Her brothers are Blake, Julius and William. Her younger sister Chelsea, is a 2 Meter player and played with Johnson at Princeton. Chelsea graduated from Princeton in 2018 and continues to be involved with water polo in Miami.

About her decision to play goalie in water polo, Johnson shared with Princeton Alumni Weekly her goalie origins trace back to her sister Chelsea:

I was just copying her, I wasn’t choosing to go in the goal because it was anything that appealed to me in particular.

Water Polo Career

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High school

Johnson attended Ransom Everglades School for high school and was raised in Miami, Florida. At Ransom Everglades, she was a four-year letter winner and starter on her school’s team guiding them to three consecutive Florida State Championships. She also earned All-Dade honors throughout career, while also earning all-county honors twice in swimming.

As a senior, Johnson committed to play water polo at Princeton University.

Collegiate career

In her first year she was named Third-Team All American, while earning Honorable Mention as a sophomore in 2014, and Second Team as a junior in 2015.

2016 Summer Olympics

2016 Summer Olympics
Gold medal – first place
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tournament team

Johnson was the first African-American woman to make the US Olympic water polo team when she made the team for the 2016 Summer Olympics. The geographical diversity Johnson brought to the team, she was the only team member not from California, was highlighted by SwimSwam before the Olympic Games. Her age, 21 years old, and sub-Saharan African ancestry, something she terms Black, were highlighted by Sports Illustrated leading up to the 2016 Olympic Games. She helped the team win the gold medal at the Olympic Games.

Orizzonte Catania, Italy

From January 2018 she has been hired by the Orizzonte Catania the most titled club in Europe. While living and training in Italy for Orizzonte Catania, Johnson has continued competing at World Championships for the United States.

Awards

  • 2014 Female Water Polo Player of the Year, selected by Swimming World magazine.
  • 2015 Female Water Polo Player of the Year, selected by Swimming World magazine.
  • 2016 Female Water Polo Player of the Year, selected by Swimming World magazine.
  • 2019 Female Water Polo Player of the Year, selected by Swimming World magazine.

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MORE ON MS. JOHNSON

Interview with World’s Top Goalkeeper: Team USA’s Ashleigh Johnson

SwimSwam caught up with Ashleigh Johnson at the unveiling of the 2016 U.S. Olympic Women’s Water Polo team at LA84 Foundation on Thursday. Johnson, the starting goalkeeper, is the only non-Californian on the 13-woman squad bound for Rio.Although it is her first Olympic Games, Johnson is no stranger to international competition. She was named Goalkeeper of the Tournament at the 2015 World Championships after Team USA’s gold-medal performance. A year earlier, she picked up Outstanding Goalkeeper honors at the 2014 FINA World Cup and was named Player of the Tournament at the 2014 Kirishi Cup.Johnson took a year of absence from Princeton University while preparing for the 2016 Olympics. Before that, she was the 2015 CWPA Player of the Year and first team honoree during her junior year, and will head back to her senior year this fall after representing Team USA in Rio de Janeiro.

Picking the best of anything is never easy. The best croissants in Paris, the best pizza in Chicago, the best pitcher in baseball — many of these decisions come down to personal preference. And are subject to endless second-guessing.

SwimmingWorld-ISHOF-Email
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Except when it comes to the best female water polo player in the world. That’s easy. Ashleigh Johnson — the top goalie on the world’s best women’s team — is Swimming World’s top female player for 2019. This is the fourth time this decade that she’s been so honored; clearly Johnson, who was an out-sized star at Princeton during her collegiate career, is deserving of a lofty standing.

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Johnson’s squad also captured gold at the 2019 FINA Worlds. In fact, the American women are in the midst of a 68-match winning streak, with no end in sight. With Johnson in nets, Team USA has beaten every contender for Olympic or World Championship titles; the Americans finished 2019 undefeated (37-0) and have gone an impressive 60-1 the past two years.

After taking time off following her graduation from Princeton in 2017 — a season in which she became the first-ever Eastern player to win a Cutino Award, given annually to the top American collegiate male and female water polo player — Johnson came back to play professionally in Italy for AS Orizzonte Catania.

Since returning last season to full-time netminding duties for U.S. Head Coach Adam Krikorian’s squad, Johnson has seen her teammates outscore the opposition by an astounding 363 goals in those 37 matches. Johnson, along with teammates Amanda Longan and Gabby Stone, surrendered just over six goals a match last year.

One keen observer of the the Miami native’s brilliance is Attila Biró, Hungarian women’s head coach. The lead decision-maker for Hungary’s women has seen his squad lose 12 times since he cam on board in 2015. He’s also been up close to Maggie Steffens, Johnson’s teammate who spent a season in Budapest playing professionally for UVSE.

In a recent interview, Biró explained his decision to pick Johnson first for the Total Waterpolo Player Award 2019.

“My vote was for Ashleigh with Maggie second and Rita Keszthelyi third,” he said. “In my opinion, Johnson is the best player now in the world, because the goalie is that much more important than 3, 4, 5, or 10 years ago. Now the goalie in water polo must be quicker and stronger.

rio-throw-coach-in-celebration-olympic-gold
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Johnson joins her coach and teammates in celebrating gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

“Johnson the past year definitely was the best goalie, in the U.S. and in the world, so that’s why they’re going to win. Maggie is a fantastic player, a little bit more complex, like [Keszthelyi], mainly on defense, that’s why she was the second, and Rita, a fantastic talent, is third.”

Expounding on the changes in the women’s game over the past decade, Biró came down strongly on the side of defense. And, in his opinion — and that of many other observers — no one backstops a defense better than Johnson.

“If you have a good goalie you have a better chance to win. It doesn’t matter who is the center-back, or center-forward or the driver, but my opinion, the best team has the best goalie. Ashleigh is playing like a gold medal goalie. Her physical conditioning is fantastic; she’s really athletic, with fantastic leg work, so it’s very difficult to beat her.”

Or, dispute that Johnson is the world’s best, which is why she’s our pick.