Di Fulvio, Johnson Are Swimming World’s Top Men’s and Women’s Water Polo Players for 2019

Lima, Thursday August 08, 2019 - Kiley Neushul (L) and Goalkeeper, Ashleig Johnson (R), from USA team play against players from Peru team in Women's Quarterfinal Water Polo match at Complejo Deportivo Villa Maria del Triunfo during Pan American Games Lima 2019. Copyright Vidal Tarqui / Lima 2019 Mandatory credits: Lima 2019 ** NO SALES ** NO ARCHIVES **
Ashleigh Johnson, Swimming World's 2019 Female Water Polo Player, watches as Makenzie Fischer is in the U.S. cage at the Pan American Games. Photo Courtesy: Vidal Tarqui

Picking the best of anything is never easy. The best croissants in Paris, the best pizza in Chicago, the best pitcher in baseball — many of these decisions come down to personal preference. And are subject to endless second-guessing.

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Except when it comes to the best female water polo player in the world. That’s easy. Ashleigh Johnson — the top goalie on the world’s best women’s team — is Swimming World’s top female player for 2019. This is the fourth time this decade that she’s been so honored; clearly Johnson, who was an out-sized star at Princeton during her collegiate career, is deserving of a lofty standing.

[Swimming World Presents: The 2019 Athletes of the Year: Diving, Artistic, Water Polo, and Disabled Swimming]

On the men’s side, the choice was not as easy. But in a year when the Italian national team demonstrated that they are gold medal contenders for the upcoming 2020 Olympics Games, defender Francesco Di Fulvio was their best player as well as a key contributor to Pro Recco, the top team in the Italian league.

“This was his best season on the [Italian] national team,” Dejan Udovicic, U.S. head coach, said about selecting Di Fulvio for the Total Waterpolo Player Award 2019. “He won the gold medal and the MVP award at the World Championships”

September 15, 2019; Avery Aquatic Center, Palo Alto, California, USA; MWP: Pro Recco vs UCLA Exhibition Game; Pro Recco 2 Meter Francesco Di Fulvio; Photo credit: Catharyn Hayne

Italy’s Francesco Di Fulvio at Stanford last September. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

As Udovicic noted, Di Fulvio led his Italian teammates to a title in the 2019 FINA World Water Polo Championships last summer in Gwuangju, South Korea. Not only was it Italy’s first world championship title in eight years — the last time Settebello won gold was 2011 in Shanghai — the win guaranteed the Italians a berth in the Tokyo Games.

A member of the Italian squad that captured bronze in the 2016 Rio Games, Di Fulvio has represented his country in 174 matches, and was earned most valuable player honors at FINA Worlds, scoring 10 goals as the Italy enjoyed a perfect run (6-0) to the title.

Last season for Pro Recco, the native of Pescara, Italy registered 57 goals in Italian league play and another 25 goals in Champions’ League play, where Recco finished third in the 2019 Final Eight championship. A member of five Italian league winners, in 2015 Di Fulvio helped the legendary club to a Champions’ League title in 2015, Pro Recco’s eighth, the most in LEN history.

His contributions to his professional club and national team were noted by Maurizio Felugo, president of Pro Recco and a legend in Italian water polo.

“An extraordinary athlete, the prototype of the modern water polo player: the new rules have enhanced his immense talent, “ Felugo said in an email. “The victory of the world cup with Italy was his consecration. We hope he will repeat his performance in the Champions League finals with Pro Recco and at the Olympic Games in Tokyo”.

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Denes Vargas, Francesco Di Fulvio. Photo Courtesy: Giorgio Scarfi

According to Francesco Grillone, who publishes WaterPoloItaly.com and is extremely knowledgeable about Italian polo, Di Fulvio is a “complete player “— in comparison to Denes Varga, who was picked just ahead of the Italian as the male Total Waterpolo Player for 2019.

“He is s defender, a forward, a playmaker,” Grillone said via email “He has a fantastic understanding of the game… the difference between Di Fulvio and Varga is very small.”

His father Franco was a member of his hometown’s polo team during the era that the great Spaniard, Manuel Estiarte was leading AS Waterpolis Pescara to international success, including a Champions’ League title in 1988.

In a nod to history, Di Fulvio wears cap number 2 in honor of Eraldo Pizzo, one of the greatest Italian water polo players.

Johnson’s squad also captured gold at the 2019 FINA Worlds. In fact, the American women are in the midst of a 68-match winning streak, with no end in sight. With Johnson in nets, Team USA has beaten every contender for Olympic or World Championship titles; the Americans finished 2019 undefeated (37-0) and have gone an impressive 60-1 the past two years.

After taking time off following her graduation from Princeton in 2017 — a season in which she became the first-ever Eastern player to win a Cutino Award, given annually to the top American collegiate male and female water polo player — Johnson came back to play professionally in Italy for AS Orizzonte Catania.

[Goalies Rule! Princeton’s Johnson, USC’s Baron Win Cutino Awards]

Since returning last season to full-time netminding duties for U.S. Head Coach Adam Krikorian’s squad, Johnson has seen her teammates outscore the opposition by an astounding 363 goals in those 37 matches. Johnson, along with teammates Amanda Longan and Gabby Stone, surrendered just over six goals a match last year.

One keen observer of the the Miami native’s brilliance is Attila Biró, Hungarian women’s head coach. The lead decision-maker for Hungary’s women has seen his squad lose 12 times since he cam on board in 2015. He’s also been up close to Maggie Steffens, Johnson’s teammate who spent a season in Budapest playing professionally for UVSE.

In a recent interview, Biró explained his decision to pick Johnson first for the Total Waterpolo Player Award 2019.

“My vote was for Ashleigh with Maggie second and Rita Keszthelyi third,” he said. “In my opinion, Johnson is the best player now in the world, because the goalie is that much more important than 3, 4, 5, or 10 years ago. Now the goalie in water polo must be quicker and stronger.

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Johnson joins her coach and teammates in celebrating gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Photo Courtesy: Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

“Johnson the past year definitely was the best goalie, in the U.S. and in the world, so that’s why they’re going to win. Maggie is a fantastic player, a little bit more complex, like [Keszthelyi], mainly on defense, that’s why she was the second, and Rita, a fantastic talent, is third.”

Expounding on the changes in the women’s game over the past decade, Biró came down strongly on the side of defense. And, in his opinion — and that of many other observers — no one backstops a defense better than Johnson.

“If you have a good goalie you have a better chance to win. It doesn’t matter who is the center-back, or center-forward or the driver, but my opinion, the best team has the best goalie. Ashleigh is playing like a gold medal goalie. Her physical conditioning is fantastic; she’s really athletic, with fantastic leg work, so it’s very difficult to beat her.”

Or, dispute that Johnson is the world’s best, which is why she’s our pick.