Ashleigh Johnson was the belle of the ball at the Ransom Everglades School swimming pool, fending off shots as goalie for the U.S. Olympic water polo team and basking in the glow of a sweet homecoming.
Johnson, a 2012 Ransom graduate who grew up in the Redland, has been training and competing with the team for the past year in preparation for the Rio Olympics. But she enjoyed a short trip home to Miami as part of the team’s three-city, three-game tour against Hungary before heading to Brazil.
“It’s been really fun to be back in this beautiful pool, back at Ransom, seeing a lot of friends and familiar faces,” Johnson said. “We got a lot of energy from the crowd and were able to show what we’re made of.”
Spectators packed the bleachers and deck to get a look at Johnson and the world’s No. 1-ranked team. Johnson had nine saves and a steal in the 13-6 victory over Hungary. Every time she rose up or lunged to block a shot she heard loud cheers from her fans.
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“I had a rough start because I was nervous, but I worked out the nerves,” she said. “I saw my sister in the stands at halftime and I calmed down.”
Rachel Fattal led the U.S. with three goals while Maggie Steffens, Courtney Mathewson and Aria Fischer scored two apiece. Hungary played a physical game and challenged Johnson with unconventional shot angles and lobs.
“This was medium rough,” Johnson said. “At the Olympics it will be more intense and everyone will play like an underdog.”
Johnson won three state titles at Ransom, then became the starting goalie at Princeton University. She is the first African-American woman to be selected to the U.S. Olympic water polo team and the only non-Californian on the roster.
The U.S. will attempt to win a second straight gold medal with Olympic rookie Johnson in goal. She’s one of nine newcomers on the team. Four players, including captain and 2012 Olympic MVP Steffens, return four years after leading the U.S. women to their first Olympic gold.
Johnson was busy posing for photos and signing autographs for an hour after the game ended. She was happy to see former teammates, coaches and teachers, as well as her mother, Donna, and four siblings. The Johnsons hosted a feast for the team at their house on Sunday night.
“It’s really cool to see my whole club team – the Riptides -- and the people I used to play against,” Johnson said. She also got some ribbing from her Ransom coach, Eric LeFebvre. “He told me I’m slower than I used to be.”
Johnson’s teammates said they enjoyed watching her on her home turf.
“They’ve got a farm-style house and Ashleigh’s mom is so gracious,” KK Clark said. “They even met us at the airport gate. It feels like an extension of our own families and this visit made our team even closer.”
The U.S. will open competition in Rio on Aug. 9 against Spain, the same team they defeated in the championship match in 2012. The U.S. will also meet China and Hungary in preliminary play with the medal round scheduled for Aug. 19.
The team has won every major international tournament since 2014.
“When you’ve had the success we’ve had, you worry about complacency, you worry about being too confident,” Coach Adam Krikorian said. “One thing that comes to mind is that we continue to be humble enough to prepare but confident enough to perform.”