Miami’s Johnson makes nine saves as U.S. wins water polo gold

United States goalkeeper Ashleigh Johnson blocked a shot on goal in the USA's 12-5 gold medal victory over Italy in women's water polo on Friday at Olympic Aquatics Stadium during the 2016 Summer Olympics Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
United States goalkeeper Ashleigh Johnson blocked a shot on goal in the USA's 12-5 gold medal victory over Italy in women's water polo on Friday at Olympic Aquatics Stadium during the 2016 Summer Olympics Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

After stuffing a penalty shot that spurred the U.S. women’s water polo team to a gold medal, goalie Ashleigh Johnson got pulled into a victory celebration with teammate KK Clark and samba dancers at one end of the Olympic Aquatics Stadium pool.

There they were, still wearing their water polo caps, swinging hips to the drumbeat with dancers in huge green and yellow feathered headdresses as the crowd chanted “U-S-A, U-S-A!”

“The footwork is crazy,” Johnson said. “Maybe I’ll learn it.”

But first she has earned a chance to put her feet up. Johnson swooped, lunged and leapt for nine saves in the U.S. team’s 12-5 win over Italy to become the first country to win back-to-back Olympic titles.

Johnson plans a homecoming with her family at their Redland house, where she will eat some of her mother Donna’s Jamaican dishes and savor her accomplishment before returning to Princeton University.

“I’m going to milk it as long as I can, but after about two hours it’ll be back to normal, and I’ll be washing dishes,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s brilliant block of a five-meter penalty shot in the third quarter was critical as the team took a 9-4 lead into the final period.

“I felt like we were losing momentum, and we got it back,” Johnson said. “It was cool to step up into my role and make some stops.”

The U.S. women’s water polo team, with Ransom Everglades graduate Ashleigh Johnson in goal, is aiming for gold.

Johnson, 21, who won four state titles at Ransom Everglades School, is the only non-Californian on the team and the first black woman to play for the Olympic team. She wasn’t happy with her play in the team’s 14-10 semifinal win over Hungary but overcame nerves to put together her best performance of the tournament.

“She was pretty dominant,” coach Adam Krikorian said. “She let in a couple balls from the outside she doesn’t typically let in, but after the first quarter she settled down.

“She made their shooters hesitant because she is so imposing, and at the same time she’s so incredibly fast and grabbed a couple steals that were big for us.”

The United States dominated in Rio, outscoring opponents 73-32 in six games. The team has a 42-2 record this year and is on a 22-game winning streak. Kiley Neuschel scored a hat trick Friday, and Rachel Fattal and Mackenzie Fischer added two goals apiece.

“We really did change the game by playing really fast and intelligent,” Johnson said.

Said Clark: “Ashleigh has made us better shooters, and we’ve made her a better goalie. We train against each other every day, and our practices are harder than the games.”

After the clock ticked to zero, the players yanked their coaches into the pool, formed a circle in the water and celebrated.

“We took a moment, took a deep breath, looked each other in the eye and said, ‘We’re champions,’ ” Johnson said.

Johnson had a cheering section in the stands: Her mother and four siblings — Blake, William, Chelsea and Julius — her aunt Claudette from Jamaica, her youth coach Carroll Vaughn from the Riptides in Cutler Ridge and some friends and ex-teammates. Her father, Winston Johnson, flew in from his job in Abu Dhabi to be in attendance.

“She came out of the goal to be aggressive and force bad shoots,” said Blake, who grew up swimming and playing water polo with his siblings.

Said Vaughn: “She was coming off a rough game, but she has never had two consecutive bad games. She was on fire, controlling the defense, talking a lot.”

William described the U.S. team as “undisputed, undefeated champions.” Donna said she was still in shock.

“This team has so much chemistry and love for one another,” she said.

The players placed their medals around Krikorian’s neck. His brother, Blake, died of a heart attack the day before Opening Ceremonies and he flew home to California, then back to Rio.

“He told us ‘Don’t worry about me, you be you, enjoy the moment, this is our dream, live it,’” said captain and MVP Maggie Steffens. “He had just gone through something traumatic. We wanted to be strong for him, but he was strong for us.”

Krikorian’s wife surprised him by flying in Thursday, which was his brother’s birthday.

“It would have been selfish of me to mourn and grieve when these players have worked so hard for four years,” he said. “My brother would have told me to have a blast and kick some butt. That gives me some peace.”

Johnson will get about a week off before returning to Princeton where she is a senior psychology major. Sister Chelsea is a politics major. They both play on the school’s water polo team.

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