TORONTO -- It began as a way for a single working mom to keep her five kids busy after school, and to make sure they didn't drown in their backyard pool.
Donna Johnson was a home health care nurse. She had no backup. If she needed to tend to a patient when the kids weren't in school, they came with her. She enrolled them in swim classes near their home in Miami, and water polo sessions followed directly after: Four hours in the water, starting at 4:30 most afternoons. Donna's older daughter Ashleigh was tall and fast and agile and easily bored. She much preferred the liveliness of the team sport, where she got to keep her head above the surface.
Ashleigh stood out in water polo from the start, partly because of her talent and partly because of her Jamaican heritage -- there are few people of color in the sport in the United States. She won three high school state championships as the goalkeeper at Ransom Everglades and honed her skills under Miami Riptides club coach Carroll Vaughn. Johnson credits assistant coach Chris Arias, a two-time All-American at Florida International University, with toughening her up by pelting her with shots and teaching her to bait and confound her opponents.
But Johnson said, "My mom was my biggest influence, teaching us how to work hard. She put so much care and effort into raising us. We had pretty strict schedules. It was school, water polo, sleep."
Johnson did continue to swim competitively but stopped racing as soon as Donna let her. The teenager's dual focus on academics and water polo ultimately propelled her to an Ivy League school (Princeton) and onto the defending Olympic champion U.S. national water polo team, which won its fourth straight Pan American Games gold medal this week, defeating Brazil and Canada in the semis and final, respectively, after cruising through the early games.
At 6-foot-1, Johnson depends on her wingspan and reflexes to deflect the fusillade of shots that come her way with a constant variety of speeds and angles. But her best weapon may be her ability to deflect pressure. She came up through the club ranks "feeling like the game never depended on me," she said, and simply went about doing her job. That approach has helped as the standard of play, and the spotlight on her, has intensified.
On Thursday, the U.S. women left Toronto to head for a training camp in Madrid ahead of the world championships in Russia. It's a six-week trip the Americans hope will finish well.
Worlds don't have any Olympic qualification implications for the women, who have to battle for that at a tournament in the Netherlands next March. Nonetheless, "We're putting a good amount of pressure on ourselves," U.S. women's coach Adam Krikorian said from the Toronto airport, where the team was about to embark for Europe. "There's only one player on our team who's won a world championship, and that was in 2009." The U.S. finished sixth in 2011 and fifth in 2013.
Johnson's play will be central to the team's success. "People are just starting to become more familiar with her and sense how special she is," said Krikorian, who won 14 NCAA championships at UCLA as a player and men's and women's coach. "She's one of the most athletically gifted goalkeepers I've ever seen, and she has a great demeanor, a very high competitive spirit."
Princeton coach Luis Nicolao echoed that assessment. "Ashleigh is an imposing figure in the water. ... She could walk onto half our [women's varsity] teams and start," he said.
Nicolao, along with Donna Johnson, persuaded Ashleigh to resist the entreaties of the water polo powerhouses in California and come to New Jersey instead. Last season, her younger sister Chelsea joined her on the Princeton team. (Their teammate, leading scorer Ashley Hatcher, also played in the Pan Am Games, representing Argentina.) With Ashleigh anchoring the defense, the Tigers went 31-5 and earned a play-in slot in the NCAA tournament, defeating Wagner as Johnson stopped 22 shots. Then Princeton ran into the buzz saw that was eventual champion Stanford. Johnson, the school's career saves leader, made 18 stops in that 7-2 first-round loss and was named to the all-tournament team.
Johnson is continually asked whether her color has ever been an issue for her in water polo, and she says it hasn't. Her mother tends to see it as an opportunity.
"I felt she was a role model in high school because she was a likable girl who extended herself," Donna Johnson said. "It wasn't along the lines of her color. But because of who she is, there may be black children who will say, 'I can do that too.' "
Ashleigh's biggest sporting challenge, aside from refining her vision and anticipation, has been to express herself more forcefully as keepers must, Nicolao said.
"She's modest to a fault," the coach said. "Being a goalie is so emotional, and 95 percent of it is in your head. This year, she's been much more vocal, much more of a leader."
The 20-year-old will take the next school year off to focus on the lead-up to the 2016 Rio Olympics. She's had so much success already that it's easy to forget she's still young and striving for consistency, Krikorian said.
"That's one of the beauties of this long trip," the coach said. "You're a little tired, you miss home. I'll be curious to see how she reacts."