Ashleigh Johnson, one of the most exceptional athletes you never heard of, was named a semi-finalist last week for the James E. Sullivan AAU Award, given annually to the top American amateur athlete.
Johnson, the starting goalie for the USA National Women’s Water Polo team and a 21 year-old Princeton student, has taken a break from her studies to pursue Olympic gold in the upcoming games in Brazil after being named the 2015 Collegiate Water Polo Association Player of the Year and leading the Tigers to the 2015 NCAA Women's Water Polo tournament.
Among Princeton athletes, only Bill Bradley, the forward whose sweet shot powered the U.S. to Olympic gold in the 1964 Tokyo games, has been selected, in 1965, for the award considered to be amateur athletics’ “Oscar”. Johnson is the only Princeton water polo player to ever be nominated for this prestigious honor.
She was recently named the 2015 WaterPoloWorld Female Player of the Year for her role in leading the US to the 2015 FINA World Championships title in and gold at the 2015 Pan American Games.
Although currently far removed from Princeton’s New Jersey campus—the defending Olympic champions are looking to qualify for Rio at the FINA Women's Water Polo Olympic Games Qualification Tournament in Holland the last week of March—the Tiger water polo star’s success is celebrated at her school.
“We’re extremely proud that Ashleigh Johnson has been nominated for the prestigious Sullivan Award,” Mollie Marcoux ’91, The Ford Family Director of Athletics at Princeton, said. “Ashleigh represents the very best of Princeton and Princeton Athletics, as she consistently excels in the pool, in the classroom and in the community.
“Ashleigh is one of the best water polo players in the world right now, and we are excited to see her represent Princeton and the United States in her quest for Olympic gold this summer,” added Ms. Marcoux.
“[She’s] one in a million; you just don’t get a 6-2 female athlete like you have in Ashleigh Johnson,” said Luis Nicolao, Princeton Women’s Water Polo Coach, who recruited and coached Johnson, the 2015 Collegiate Water Polo Association’s Player of the Year, from 2013 – 2015.
By virtue of her nomination, Johnson is in the company of the country’s top amateur athletes. Breanna Stewart (University of Connecticut basketball); Derrick Henry (University of Alabama football 2015 Heisman Trophy winner); Ben Simmons (Louisiana State University basketball); and Jordan Wilimovsky (USA Swimming) are among 17 semifinalists for the 86th annual Sullivan award, to be presented on April 10 at The New York Athletic Club,
Water polo athletes are rarely nominated for the Sullivan Award, and so far none has won it. In 1975, Tim Shaw, who competed as both a swimmer and water polo player, won a Sullivan for swimming. Shaw went on to compete with the USA Men’s Water Polo Team that captured silver at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. One of Shaw’s teammates, Terry Schroeder, was nominated for water polo in 1988.
Past Sullivan recipients have included world renowned golfer Robert “Bobby” Jones, who received the inaugural award in 1930 and swimmer Anne Curtis, who in 1944 became the first female to accept the award.
Other notable athletes to win the award include famed Olympians Mark Spitz (1971), Carl Lewis (1981), Jackie Joyner-Kersee (1986) and Michael Phelps (2003). Former UCLA basketball star Bill Walton (1973) and University of Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning (1997) have also earned the prestigious honor.
Semi-finalist voting, to determine ten finalists, opened to the public at www.aausullivan.org on March 9 and closes on March 14. Finalists for the award will be named on March 17.