She is older and wiser than when she roamed the halls at Ransom Everglades High School; and on Thursday she had an Olympic gold medal hanging around her neck as she addressed an auditorium full of students.
Otherwise, Ashleigh Johnson is much the same person she was when she graduated from the Coconut Grove school and headed off to Princeton University four years ago.
She is humble, sweet, giggly, generous, and her favorite food — after all her travels — remains her mother Donna’s stew peas. Johnson said it is the food she craved most when she arrived home from the Rio Olympics Aug. 23 after leading the U.S. water polo team to the gold medal.
“I’ve been doing a lot of media, relaxing with family and enjoying my Mom’s cooking so much,” said Johnson, the Team USA goalkeeper and first black woman ever on the U.S. Olympic water polo team. “I was really, really craving stew peas. It’s a Jamaican dish, and my Mom makes it so good.”
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Johnson heads back to Princeton next week, where an 80-page senior thesis paper looms. “I’m so nervous for that,” she said. But first, she is scheduled to throw out the first pitch at the Marlins game against the Phillies next Tuesday. When she returns to school, she plans to leave her medal with her mother in their Redland house.
“I give everything of value to my Mom because I trust her more than anyone,” Johnson said. “I know she’ll take great care of it.”
Asked how many times she has bitten the medal for photos since she got it, Johnson laughed and said she bit it just once and now so many people have touched it that she has no desire to bite it anymore.
She found Ransom “just like I left it.” Johnson led the Raiders to four state water polo titles and also was a standout on the swim team. She still holds the school record in the 50 freestyle, which she set at the 2009 state championship. A banner congratulating her for the Olympic medal hangs over the entrance to the school, and another will hang in the natatorium.
She advised students to maintain balance in their lives. She also told them not to be afraid to ask for help, and to cherish the friendships and connections they make in high school.
Johnson was never one to be starstruck by professional athletes. Asked if there were any athletes she emulated as a kid, she said she chose to emulate her mother “because she has the values she instilled in me and exemplified those values for me.” But she did sheepishly admit that she hoped to see Jamaican track star Usain Bolt in the Olympic Opening Ceremonies and was disappointed he didn’t go.
Johnson met Serena Williams and Kevin Durant in the Athletes’ Village and said playing water polo on the world’s biggest stage was even more exciting than she had imagined.
“It was overwhelming, intense,” she said. “I had never played in front of a crowd that big or that loud. It was like playing in a soccer game in Brazil. It was so cool. The crowd dictated the momentum of the game. An amazing experience.”
She is looking forward to returning for her senior year at Princeton, reuniting with friends and school teammates, one of whom is her sister, Chelsea.
“I’ve gained a lot of good leadership qualities I’m going to try to bring into the Princeton team,” Johnson said. “The mentality that nothing is really out of reach. A lot of people on my Princeton team don’t have aspirations to win NCAAs because we’re not on the West Coast. We’re an East Coast mostly academic school, but I want them to dream like I did and be able to push themselves to what I know their bodies can do.”
Johnson was the only non-Californian on the U.S. Olympic water polo team.
Ransom Head of School Penny Townsend got choked up as she introduced Johnson.
“When you get to introduce a former student who has done what she’s done and who actually embodies all we hope for in our students, you get emotional,” she said. “She’s an amazing young woman. … What I hope the students took away is that the gold medal is amazing, but it’s the other things … honoring her mother, the balance she brought to her life, being a hard-working student.
“Our mission is about giving more to the world than you take from it, and I think she’s done exactly that.”