Ashleigh Johnson: School before pool

"Ashleigh is so athletic and so smart in the water -- she's an intimidating force," Princeton water polo coach Luis Nicolao says. "She's already great, and she's going to get better." Courtesy of Lisa Weaver

Miami native Ashleigh Johnson, one of the nation’s top young water polo goalies, had to choose a path: Olympic Games or Ivy League.

If she headed west, Johnson, 17, could have soon found herself in contention for a spot on the world’s grandest athletic stage, a tradition that has roots dating back to ancient Greece, circa 776 B.C.

If she headed to the Northeast, Johnson could have studied at Princeton, founded in 1746 and regarded as one of the world’s most prestigious universities.

Johnson selected Princeton.

“I chose Princeton because I want to be a doctor and I want to be challenged academically,” says Johnson, who recently graduated from Ransom Everglades (Miami). “I don’t want my whole life to be water polo.”

Johnson was a member of the U.S. Youth National Team last year. But to continue on the path toward the 2016 Olympics, many thought she had to go to college on the West Coast, where all the members of the U.S. National Team live and train.

As it turns out, she received scholarship offers from several California universities, including UCLA, Southern Cal, San Diego State and UC Irvine.

But, in her mind, if she had gone to California, her main focus would have been wrong.

“I still want to play water polo (in college),” says Johnson, who is expected to be Princeton’s starting goalie as a freshman. “But if I went to a West Coast school, I think water polo would have turned out to be my major.”

Prep star in Miami

At Ransom, Johnson was a four-year starter and led the Raiders to three straight state titles (2010-12). She also earned All-America honors at the 2010 and 2011 Junior Olympics.

Ransom coach Eric Lefebvre said his star pupil has natural talent and a good work ethic.

“She has excellent height and long arms,” Lefebvre says of the 6-foot-1 Johnson. “She is also very strong, smart and flexible -- she can do a full split -- and she has the quickness of someone 5-5.”

Sometimes, she makes the game look too easy.

“People say, ‘Hey, they’re shooting right at her,’ ” Lefebvre says. “But that’s because she anticipates shots and understands tendencies. She knows what the shooter wants to do.

“That’s why she doesn’t have to lunge at the last second to make a save.”

Another Johnson superlative is her swimming ability. She was a state champion in the 50-meter freestyle, and she uses her speed to disrupt offenses.

“Most one-on-none breaks against her end with Ashleigh stealing the ball instead of blocking it,” Lefebvre says. “You just don’t expect her to get there that fast.”

Blazing a trail

It’s not just her athletic ability that makes Johnson stand out. She is also one of a small number of minorities playing water polo.

Claudia Dodson, the associate director of competition for USA Water Polo, estimates that there are only seven or eight African-Americans who compete in the sport at the national or Junior Olympics level.

“Water polo has to do a better job,” Dodson says, “of finding those great minority athletes who might be sitting in Los Angeles, Chicago or Miami, and have not been exposed to the sport.”

Dodson said Johnson stayed at her home one weekend before flying to Brazil for a tournament.

“She was awesome -- smart, interesting and interested,” Dodson says. “Ashleigh didn’t have anyone (of her race) to set an example for her in water polo.

“But she is self-motivated and has now blazed a trail for others who want to use her as a role model.”

Academics first

Johnson is not just a success in the pool. She’s also a bright student, recording a B-plus GPA and an ACT score of 29 (out of 36).

But a lot of the credit there must go to her mother, Donna Johnson, who, after her divorce, raised five children on her own.

Ashleigh is the middle child and the only one, so far, who is set to compete in college sports. Her younger sister, Chelsea, a field player in water polo at Ransom, is starting to draw interest from Brown and Michigan. She will be a junior this coming school year.

Donna Johnson, a nurse and a native of Kingston, Jamaica, said she was initially afraid to have Ashleigh play goalie.

“It’s such a big job -- all the burden is on your shoulders,” she says. “But she looks at it as a pleasure.

“She is quiet, sweet and obedient at home, but she is ferocious in the pool. I’m looking forward to seeing her play in college. She always felt she wasn’t challenged in high school.”

She should be challenged next season.

Princeton is coming off the best season in school history. The Tigers (29-6) made the NCAA tournament for the first time, finishing sixth.

Princeton coach Luis Nicolao, who said replacing graduated goalie Kristen Ward was his top recruiting priority, felt he accomplished his mission by signing Johnson.

“Ashleigh is so athletic and so smart in the water -- she’s an intimidating force,” Nicolao says. “She’s already great, and she’s going to get better. She was a great catch for us.”

The Olympic dream

The U.S. national team coaches saw all those same qualities in Johnson, which is why she was part of their program.

Nicolao and Lefebvre think Johnson has the talent to take some time off from the national team and still make the 2016 Olympic team -- if she chooses.

“Water polo is not going to pay your bills -- it’s that degree,” Nicolao says. “Most of our Olympians at Princeton are postgraduate, and there’s no question Ashleigh has the ability.”

Making the 2016 team would be no small feat. The U.S. women’s water polo program is one of the most respected in the world, medaling in the past three Olympics with two silvers and one bronze.

In a perfect world, Johnson would love to compete in the Olympics. But besides her academic pursuits, there is also a financial impediment to her returning to the national team.

Johnson said that in order to participate with the team and travel to different tournaments and tryouts, each player is expected to raise thousands of dollars annually to defray costs.

“I had to raise $800 per tryout,” Johnson says. “It was getting to be too much. There were no more (friends and family members) to ask (for money).

“Some of the girls on the team just asked their parents for the money. But we couldn’t afford that.”

Johnson said she doesn’t know if she will ever be an Olympian. If it doesn’t happen, she’ll be fine with that as long as she reaches her academic goals at Princeton.

She will enroll at Princeton on July 15 and will start watching the U.S. water polo team on television a couple of weeks after that as the Americans go for Olympic gold in London.

“I will be rooting for Team USA,” Johnson says. “But I will also say to myself, ‘Oh, I could do that.’ ”