Olympics: Behind Outstanding Ashleigh Johnson, U.S. Women’s Water Polo Claim Third Straight Gold

Aug 7, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; United States goalkeeper Ashleigh Johnson (1) tries for make a save against Spain in the women's waterpolo gold medal match during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tatsumi Water Polo Centre. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
U.S. women's water polo goalie Ashleigh Johnson makes one of her 11 saves in the gold-medal match against Spain; Photo Courtesy: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

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Olympics: Behind Outstanding Ashleigh Johnson, U.S. Women’s Water Polo Claim Third Straight Gold

For the briefest of moments, the U.S. women’s water polo team looked vulnerable Saturday. In the gold medal game, against the heavy underdog Spain, the U.S. saw an early lead challenged by an even second quarter.

Then Ashleigh Johnson and company did what the U.S. does better than any water polo team in the world.

Johnson was a brick wall in an outstanding performance, and the U.S. used that platform to run away from Spain with five unanswered goals in the third quarter en route to a 14-5 win in the gold-medal match of the Tokyo Olympics.

Aug 7, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; The United States bench cheers against Spain in the women's waterpolo gold medal match during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tatsumi Water Polo Centre. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Ashleigh Johnson, center, and her U.S. water polo teammates celebrate a win in the gold-medal match against Spain on Saturday; Photo Courtesy: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

It’s the team’s third straight gold medal, a streak that stretches back to London, again defeating Spain in the gold-medal match. The U.S. won silver in Beijing in 2008. It’s a third straight gold for Melissa Seidemann and Maggie Steffens. Maddie Musselman, Rachel Fattal, Kaleigh Gilchrist, Johnson, Aria Fischer and Makenzie Fischer all have won their second consecutive gold.

“I have the chills right now. I don’t think it’s fully sunk in yet. I’m just proud of this moment. One thing we focused on through this whole tournament is just to enjoy the moment as much as possible and that’s what I’m doing right now. I’m just really happy,” Steffens said. “It wasn’t just one player. It wasn’t two players. You look up on there and we had different people getting blocks, different people getting huge goals here, different people guarding and to see such a full team at the end of this just makes me feel really proud to be a part of it.”

The Spanish team would’ve sensed some opportunity in the U.S., with the Americans having dropped a group-stage game to Hungary to end a win streak dating back to the Beijing Olympics. But that vulnerability proved illusory, with a gold-medal score near that of the Rio triumph over Italy (12-5). The emotional celebration that followed illustrated that nothing was taken for granted, even from America’s golden generation of polo players.

“This moment is everything we’ve been working towards over the past five years, and especially over the past 14 months. It’s been an intense show of resiliency and teamwork and love and passion and I’m so proud of what my team showed today. I’m so proud of how we performed for each other today and for the people that we represent. I hope everyone was watching and I hope they find something in our performance today because we gave everything that we had,” Johnson said.

“This one is special because it’s a whole different team. It’s with a whole different mindset. I’m not the same athlete that I was in 2016. I’ve grown so much. I got to know these girls so well and it just showed today in the water how much effort and work we put in over the past few years.

Saturday’s win appeared in doubt for a moment. The U.S. jumped out to a 4-1 lead after one quarter and a 6-1 lead in the middle of the second, but Spain clawed it back to just a 7-4 lead at halftime.

The U.S. responded by making sure Spain stayed stuck on four goals for just shy of 14 minutes. Johnson was simply outstanding, stopping all six action shots she faced in the third quarter as the U.S. ran away and hit. She allowed four goals on 15 shots on target before Amanda Long replaced her with 2:35 to play. Spain scored just one goal on 16 action-shot opportunities.

The offense did its bit with customary balance. Musselman scored three times. Defensive-minded players Gilchrist and Alys Williams scored twice each, while Aria Fischer scored two goals to go with dogged work in drawing exclusions. The U.S. was 8-for-10 on extra-player opportunities.

Fattal scored with one second left in the first quarter to make it 4-1 U.S. Gilchrist tallied to make it 6-1 at 5:48 of the second, but Spain charged back, with Maria Garcia Godoy’s second goal of the half sending Spain into the break down just 7-4.

But the contact would be short lived. Williams and Aria Fischer scored on the first two possessions of the second half to make it 9-4. Stephanie Haralabidis buried a penalty shot to make it 11-4, and Aria Fischer ended all doubt by scoring with six seconds left in the quarter, a 5-0 margin that was too much for youthful but game Spain to overcome.

The American women have been the dominant team in this era of water polo. In addition to the three straight Olympic gold medals, the team has captured three straight world titles (2015, 2017 and 2019), three straight World Cup victories and seven straight wins in the FINA Water Polo World League. U.S. head coach Adam Krikorian credited that run of impressive results to the mental makeup of his veteran players.

“I don’t know. Other than (they’re) fierce, competitive athletes who are so hungry for more, no matter how much success they’ve had,” Krikorian said. “They’re unwavering in their approach. Obviously, when you’ve had success before it gives you some confidence going into a game like this. We’ve talked a lot about the fine line between confidence and complacency. But we’ve done a fantastic job of just staying focused through this process, and it’s amazing.”

The team’s offensive surge was predicated on the dominance of its goalkeeper. “When she is on, and you can tell early she was feeling it, and seeing the ball really well, we’re almost impossible to beat,” Krikorian said of Johnson.

Musselman added, “Her presence, you can feel it, even when you’re on offence. You hear her voice everywhere you are. She’s a dominant force in there and you know that when she has the first quarter in her hands, the rest of the game is in her hands, too. That’s special to have someone back there with so much confidence. You don’t even have to turn around to know if she’s blocked it or not, you just know.”

Meanwhile, Spain earned a silver medal after an impressive 6-2 run in the Olympic tournament. Prior to Saturday’s loss to the Americans, Spain’s only defeat was a narrow 14-13 setback to the Netherlands on July 28. But that was no consolation for the Spanish women after falling to the U.S. “Destroyed,” said Spain’s Anna Espar Llaquet. “I really wanted this gold and I can only say congratulations to the USA. They played an amazing game. I’m really proud of my team and what we have achieved and I’m only thinking of Paris (2024).”

Musselman and Steffens finished 18 goals each for the tournament, tied for second most, and she was named the Most Valuable Player of the Olympics. Makenzie Fischer added 14 goals. Johnson stopped 65 percent of her shots for the tournament (80 of 124), and for her efforts, she was named the tournament’s top goalkeeper.

2 comments

  1. avatar
    Anonymous

    Congratulations to all of the women on the team you deserve the gold for your hard work and dedication 👏

  2. avatar
    Sharon Urscheler

    Congratulations to the team on winning Gold. Way to go Ashleigh, Miami and the nation is proud of your achievements!