When Donna Johnson decided to raise her five children in the peaceful, pastoral splendor of the Redland, she chose a five-acre plot dotted with mango, avocado and sapodilla trees.
The house had a swimming pool, too, which was a problem — at first. Johnson, a nurse, often panicked from work, imagining that her kids had drowned when nobody answered her phone calls. She enrolled them in lessons to make them into competent swimmers. But they showed such flashes of talent they were urged to join the Riptides club at the pool behind their elementary school in Cutler Ridge.
The Johnson kids did so reluctantly only because it was convenient for their harried mother, divorced and on her own, to have everybody competing in the same sport at the same place.
“I liked the water but I hated swimming,” said Ashleigh Johnson, the middle child. “So boring.”
Fortunately for the Johnsons and the U.S. national water polo team, Riptides coach Carroll Vaughan happened to be accomplished in the sport they had never heard of. She offered water polo as a reward.
“I said, ‘If you’re good at swimming practice Monday through Thursday, I’ll give you a ball to play with on Fridays,” Vaughan said. “Gradually it became more about water polo. The Johnson kids are phenomenal athletes and it turned out to be the perfect sport for them.”
So perfect that Ashleigh Johnson can now trace her path from backyard pool in the Redland to Kazan, Russia, site of the world championships, where she will be backup goalkeeper for the United States. The team plays its first game in the 16-team tournament Sunday, against Brazil.
On her 2016 calendar: The Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
Johnson, 20, a graduate of Ransom-Everglades School, is taking a year off from Princeton University, where she’s a psychology major and starting goalie, to train with the national team. Younger sister Chelsea also plays for Princeton.
Johnson is the only African American and non-Californian on the U.S. team, among the favorites for the world title. In fact, she would be the first African-American woman to compete in water polo at the Olympics, a breakthrough that would make her proud but one that she doesn’t contemplate much.
“I’m used to not seeing any other black players, although I’m always happy to see one,” Johnson said. “There just aren’t many black athletes in aquatic sports. It would be amazing if that could change.”
The Johnson kids stood out on the pool deck, not only because they were five black siblings in an overwhelmingly white world but because they were so fast at swim meets and so dominant in water polo. Blake, 24, a Palmetto High graduate, is now a lifeguard in Islamorada. William, 22, a Belen graduate, plays water polo for the University of Florida’s club team. Chelsea, 19, a Ransom grad, is an attacker for Princeton. Julius, 14, plays for Palmetto.
“We chanced upon water polo, and when you see the team photos, yes, it’s glaring,” said Donna Johnson, a native of Jamaica. “But I’ve never experienced any prejudice and I raised my kids not to look for it. Race wasn’t made an issue in our household. I never ask my kids what color their girlfriends or boyfriends are, or what color their boss is.
“We aren’t rich and we went to rich schools, yet we never felt uncomfortable or slighted.”
Vaughan recruits black kids to her club in Cutler Ridge by offering scholarships.
“I would love to reach more African Americans,” said Vaughan, a former Palmetto High athlete who also coaches Gulliver Academy’s teams. “They don’t get into the water because they fear it. I love the African-American kids I work with because they are so focused and really want to learn.”
Water polo — which could be described as a wet version of soccer except that soccer players don’t have to tread water vigorously and fend off the sort of nasty contact that leads to ripped swimsuits — is not a mainstream sport in most of the United States but is extremely popular in California. Vaughan’s Riptides accomplished a coup two years ago at the Junior Olympics, when they placed sixth — the only club outside California in the top 25.
“In California every high school, college and community college has a pool, and for every one kid we have trying out in South Florida, they get 200,” Vaughan said. “When it comes to polo, California is almost like Hungary, where the LeBron Jameses and Dwyane Wades choose our sport.”
Johnson stands out on a national team roster full of athletes from California beach cities and collegiate powerhouses. She was recruited by UCLA, USC and Cal-Berkeley but chose Princeton for its academics.
“I didn’t want to major in water polo,” she said. “I wanted a balance.”
U.S. coach Adam Krikorian has praised her for seamlessly blending in when she could have felt like an outsider. At two tournaments in China last month she excelled as the starting goalie in place of the injured Sami Hill — who is from Santa Barbara and played for UCLA — and blocked a penalty shot that preserved an 8-7 World League Super Final victory against Australia in Shanghai.
“We were cohesive, and that is the responsibility of the goalie,” Johnson said. “You have to be able to talk to your teammates and have them respond. ...I’m trying to become more talkative. I feel closer to the team now, like I belong. I feel less intimidated playing with the West Coast girls.”
Johnson, 6-1, is known for her aggressive tactics and mastery of the angles. She likes to charge out of the goal box and make steals or challenge opponents to lob the ball over her.
“She baits them into bad shots and gets into their heads, and a shorter goalkeeper without her strength would not be able to pull that off,” Vaughan said. “She’s so accurate on the counterattack she can put the ball right into her players’ hands. She’s got cat-like reflexes, flexibility, incredible leg strength, no fear of the ball, super intelligent.”
Johnson could have been — and was — an elite swimmer in addition to excelling at water polo. She won the state 50-meter freestyle title at Ransom as a sophomore, then quit competitive swimming.
“She’s a very graceful swimmer but I had to plead with her to do high school swimming by promising her that after two years she could concentrate on water polo,” Donna Johnson said. “She never raced again.”
Vaughan told former national team coach Guy Baker about Johnson and he wanted her molded into a goalie.
“Years ago he said, ‘Keep her in the goal; I want my best athletes in goal,’” Vaughan said. “She could shoot the ball the full length of the court [30 meters]. But we always saw her as goalie, the quarterback of the team.”
Johnson led Ransom to three consecutive state championships. While at Princeton under coach Luis Nicolao, she has set records for saves (including 19 against Cal-Berkeley in her freshman debut and a total of 1,003 for her career so far) and led the Tigers to a sixth place finish in the NCAA tournament. She was named Swimming World Magazine Female Water Polo Player of the Year in January. She earned Outstanding Goalkeeper honors at the 2013 junior world championships and the 2014 FINA World Cup. With Johnson in goal recording 12 saves, the United States defeated Canada 13-4 for the Pan Am Games title July 14 and is training in Madrid before heading to Russia.
World and Olympic gold medals could be in Johnson’s future.
“She’s as humble as ever and goes about her business with no fanfare,” her mother said.
Said Johnson: “I have a long way to go. I don’t know what my best is yet, but I can definitely do better and better.”
The root of that humility is in the Redland, where Johnson grew up with a horse named Lonely, a German shepherd named Rover and three brothers and a sister who never let her get too big a head for her water polo cap.