Ashleigh Johnson ’17 and the United States won gold at the World Championships last summer.
Colin Watson/USA Water Polo

Ashleigh Johnson ’17 and the United States won gold at the World Championships last summer.

Ashleigh Johnson ’17 has trained to play water polo nearly her entire life. Her mother, Donna, a single parent and full-time nurse, pushed her five children to excel at the sport. “There’s nothing you can’t do — just keep at it,” Johnson remembers her mother telling her as a child. The refrain still guides her training today. 

While most elite water polo players choose West Coast schools like Stanford and UCLA, where the competition and training are most intense, Johnson, a junior national-team player and top recruit, chose Princeton. “She didn’t want to major in water polo,” said Eric LeFebvre, Johnson’s high school coach in Miami, Fla. “At Princeton, she could follow whatever she wanted.”

What Johnson wanted was to study psychology, with an eye toward medical school. Princeton has challenged her academically, she said, but not to the detriment of her athletic development. 

“I’ve become way more self-motivated,” said Johnson, who would often train on her own while head coach Luis Nicolao worked with the non-goalies. “I know what shape I have to be in to play at my best.” 

As Johnson matured, she became more vocal in the water, according to Nicolao. By the time she took a year off from Princeton to train full time for the Olympic Games this summer in Rio de Janeiro, her coach on the U.S. National Team, Adam Krikorian, saw a different personality starting to shine through her reserved exterior. “When that competitiveness comes out, it’s natural to be more assertive,” he said.

In Johnson, Krikorian sees a tireless competitor. Even during practice, when no one is keeping score, Johnson will scramble to block every shot that her teammates attempt. 

Krikorian also sees a leader, and for that he credits Princeton. As the first African American on the women’s national water polo team, Johnson has drawn crowds while on tour in Europe and in Asia. She’ll be featured in NBC’s advertising campaign for the Olympics.

“There are lines and grown men wanting a picture or autograph with Ashleigh,” Krikorian said. “You don’t see that in our sport. We’ve had to pull her away. It’s new for all of us. There’s a responsibility with that — being a good role model.”