The Next 'It Girl' of the Olympics Hits Hard
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the sport’s primed for a superstar.
By Libby Coleman
Ashleigh Johnson rises out of the water and launches her right hand up. THWACK!! Goal blocked. A minute later, she positions herself for a second save. She passes the ball down the pool; her teammate scores. Four minutes have passed in Team USA’s match against Russia — its last before heading to Rio — and already the only name on the announcer’s lips is Johnson’s.
Johnson is a first-class defender and probably the brightest star on Team USA’s women’s water polo team, and now, at 21, she’s making her first trip to the Olympics. The Princeton athlete already has won a bevy of accolades, including Goalkeeper of the Tournament at the 2015 World Championships and Outstanding Goalkeeper honors at the 2014 FINA World Cup. She’s not just the only African-American woman to be selected for the U.S. Olympic water polo team but also the only non-Californian on this year’s roster. “There’s some athletes in sports who come along and make everyone else around them play better,” former Olympian Nicolle Payne says. “I think she has the ability to elevate the game as a whole.”
She’s the perfect candidate to be the face of water polo.
Johnson might even put poor, neglected water polo on the map. Ferocious and intense, the sport has the makings of a ratings-grabber, but it gets few props, perhaps because so much of the action takes place underwater. Nonetheless, there are some signs of growth. The USA Water Polo budget is now $11 million, up by $8 million from about a decade ago, and some 61 women’s college teams compete nationwide, compared to 43 in 1999–2000. Traditionally, California has led the scene, with its sunshine and prospects for year-round outdoors training, says Johnson’s coach at Princeton, Luis Nicolao. But transplants from the west have helped the sport migrate east, similar to lacrosse’s spread from New England to the rest of the country. This year, the USA Water Polo team played in the northeast and, according to Nicolao, interest is booming in Florida, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Illinois, Texas and Michigan.
Perhaps the only thing missing is a figure to step in and become its superstar, the way Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings transformed women’s beach volleyball into must-see TV. Johnson’s coach believes she could be just that: She’s “the perfect candidate to be the face of water polo,” Nicolao says. “Things come so easy for her in the water.”
In the pool, Johnson is fast and cerebral, a modern-day mermaid with strength and agility. She dives, passes and blocks with precision — and she gets in her opponents’ heads. “There’s lanes in the pool, but I can see those too. If I want opponents to shoot somewhere, I leave that ‘open,’ ” Johnson says. She has an easy charisma and, between plays, flashes a big smile that is wholly appropriate for a Wheaties box.
Growing up in Miami, Johnson’s single mother enrolled her and her four siblings in a swimming program, which included water polo. At 9 years old, Johnson spent hours with her family in the pool, but she never watched high-level water polo when she was younger. In fact, she first saw professional play in 2012, when the U.S. played in the London Olympics, with scoring phenom Maggie Steffens winning gold. The problem was access: Streamed games were hard to come by. Johnson can’t recall any role models before her and her teammates.
When college came around, Johnson opted for Princeton, sixth in the country in water polo in 2015. Already, the rising senior is the university’s record holder for most saves in a game and has logged more than 1,000 saves. Having left school this year to train for the Olympics, Johnson will graduate in 2017 rather than 2016. After all, this kind of platform comes around only every four years.
Growing a sport isn’t easy, but water polo might have a secret strength: gender equality in its rules. “We have more ground to cover,” Payne says, but, she adds, “I feel like there’s actual parity in our sport in how the game is played.” Translation? Women’s water polo is as fast-paced, brutal and high level as men’s. Plus, the U.S. women’s team is best in the world; the men’s is sixth. Still, a lack of racial diversity in water polo, which many blame on unequal access to pools and coaching, persists. Johnson is the best Black player in the U.S. by a long shot and, though she doesn’t think she can fix the whole problem, she agrees that “people being able to see me here will open so many doors for other Black people and younger people who don’t look like anyone else in the sport.”
Some doubt that Johnson is fully ripe. “My feeling is that she’s barely even scratched the surface of her talent when it comes to the mental side,” James E. Smith, managing editor at Total Water Polo, says. “She doesn’t have the experience.” Johnson agrees, and is learning. She’ll likely show at two more Olympics, in a sport where people peak in their mid-twenties. Johnson’s biggest personal concern is working out her technique. She still occasionally reverts to old habits from her Miami days, when the coaches were less stringent.
When she emerges from Stanford’s pool, the U.S. is leading Russia. The game’s final score: 16–7. Johnson’s teammates high-five her. A grounds-crew worker interrupts us — he just has to get it off his chest: “You were fantastic.” It’s her first taste of celebrity. Fans yell her name from the stands, requesting a signed ball. One particular groupie crafted the team red, white and blue necklaces. Next time Johnson puts something around her neck, it might be solid gold.