Star goalie Ashleigh Johnson set to make U.S. Olympic water polo history

Ashleigh Johnson
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LOS ALAMITOS, Calif. — Donna Johnson just wanted her five children to be safe around the pool at her Miami home. That was it, really, the first step in Ashleigh Johnson‘s path from prodigy to USA water polo.

Swim lessons turned into meets when their instructor told Donna Johnson her children were so good she had nothing left to teach them. When Ashleigh and her siblings continued to show athletic potential as they got older, Donna Johnson, a single mother and nurse from Jamaica, delivered a simple message to them.

“For everything that they do, it’s not about pressure, it’s about maximizing your potential,” she said.

Now her oldest daughter is about to make history this summer. Ashleigh, a goaltender blessed with jaw-dropping athleticism, is a lock for Rio de Janeiro, putting her on track to become the first black woman to play water polo for the U.S. Olympic team.

While this is just the fifth Games for the women’s tournament, Johnson’s ascension to elite goaltender is a welcome development for a sport looking for more diversity and growth outside of water polo-crazy Southern California.

Each of Johnson’s teammates is from the Golden State, and the same three Pac-12 schools — UCLA, Southern California and Stanford — dominate the roster. Seventy-five percent of USA Water Polo’s roughly 42,000 members live in California.

After starring at Ransom Everglades High School in Florida, Johnson opted for Princeton instead of USC.

“I think Ashleigh Johnson’s the future of our sport in the U.S.,” USA Water Polo CEO Christopher Ramsey said. “She’s an out-of-California athlete who grew up in Florida. She went to Princeton, high academic achiever from a different background than a lot of traditional water polo families are from.”

Just a short while ago, Johnson, 21, wasn’t interested in that future, at least with the national team. The thought of moving away from her tight-knit family and joining a new team in California wasn’t appealing to her, but several conversations with coach Adam Krikorian helped change her mind.

“I didn’t really know that the Olympics was a possibility for me,” Johnson said. “I thought it was just like coming and training like I had been doing for years, but just living out here, and he made me realize that the Olympics was a great opportunity and a possibility for me.”

Krikorian first heard of Johnson about 10 years ago when he was the head coach at UCLA. Nicolle Payne, one of his assistants with the Bruins and a former national team goaltender, was working a camp in Miami when she sent an email to Krikorian about America’s next great goaltender.

“She said, ‘Adam, keep this name in your mind,’ and she told me her name — Ashleigh Johnson,” Krikorian said. “‘She is the most amazing goalie I have ever seen.”‘

It’s easy to see what got Payne’s attention.

The 6-foot-1 Johnson has long arms, perfect for firing outlet passes for U.S. counterattacks and guarding the top parts of the goal, and she cuts through the water with impressive ease. Sick of swimming in high school, she was offered an out by her mother and coach if she won the 50-meter freestyle at states as a sophomore. So she won and walked away.

She collected 54 saves while helping the United States qualify for the Olympics at a tournament in the Netherlands in March, including 10 stops in an 11-6 victory over Italy in the final, capping an 8-0 performance for the Americans. But that gifted sprinter is still inside her.

At a recent practice, assistant coach Chris Oeding gave the team a chance to cut short the swimming portion of training if the players could assemble a sub-1:40 200-yard freestyle relay team. Krikorian and assistant coach Dan Klatt offered a nodding Johnson as a candidate, but four different players were chosen.

They made the time, but Johnson stole the show by swimming the second leg alongside the relay, leaving Krikorian and Klatt shaking their heads as she churned through the pool like a motorboat.

“She’s a freak,” Princeton coach Luis Nicolao said. “She’s just athletic. I often joke she could probably start for our basketball team, track team, swim team, she just has that natural ability to succeed at anything she does.”

Johnson and her sister, Chelsea, play for Nicolao with the Tigers. They have two older brothers, Blake and William, and one younger brother, Julius.

Their parents got divorced when Ashleigh was little, and Donna Johnson raised the kids mostly on her own. It’s a challenging juggling act not lost on her children.

“I mean she’s such a hard-working, loving and determined woman,” Ashleigh said, “and she’s taught me that hard work ethic and just to try my best at everything and love what I do.”

Chelsea Johnson, who joked that she followed her sister to Princeton because she didn’t want to play against her, said she sees similarities between Ashleigh and their mother.

“I think the biggest thing from her, she and Ashleigh, is that she’s always smiling, no matter what,” she said. “Like her and Ashleigh, not matter what they’re doing, no matter how hard the thing is, they’re always smiling and trying to make everyone around them feel better about whatever’s happening.”

VIDEO: Ashleigh Johnson stands out on U.S. water polo team

Peter Sagan to retire from road cycling, eyes mountain bike at 2024 Paris Olympics

Peter Sagan
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Peter Sagan said 2023 will be his final year as a professional road cyclist and that he will target the 2024 Olympics in mountain bike.

Sagan made the announcement on his 33rd birthday in a social media video. He said he made the decision “quite some time ago.”

“I always said I would like to finish my career on the mountain bike, because I started my career on the mountain bike,” Sagan said in a press conference, according to Cyclingnews.com. “It gives me some pleasure at the end of my career because I’m doing something I really enjoy.

“It’s important for me to spend time with my son Marlon and to see life from different angles, and not just as a cyclist. It was never my dream to race or to be a professional rider until 40 or 50. I think it’s time now. And if I am going to be able to finish my career in Paris at the Olympics Games, that’s going to be something nice for me.”

Sagan is a record seven-time Tour de France green jersey champion as best sprinter. He has 12 individual stage wins (the last in 2019), second-most among active riders behind Mark Cavendish‘s record-tying 34.

At the Olympics, Sagan was 34th in the road race in 2012 and 35th in the mountain bike in 2016. He missed the Tokyo Games after surgery to treat an infection in his right knee stemming from a 2021 Tour de France crash.

Sagan won the world junior title in mountain biking at age 18 in 2008 before his road racing career, which included three consecutive world road race titles from 2015-17.

Of qualifying for Paris in the mountain bike, he said, “We’ll see whether it is even possible, but I think it can be another nice adventure.”

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2023 U.S. Figure Skating Championships TV, live stream schedule

U.S. Figure Skating Championships
U.S. Figure Skating
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The U.S. Figure Skating Championships, in some ways marking a new era in the sport, air live from San Jose, California, on NBC Sports, USA Network and Peacock.

After last February’s Olympics, U.S. figure skating saw its greatest turnover from one season to the next in more than 20 years.

Nathan Chen and Vincent Zhou, the top two men last season, are not competing this season and may be done altogether. Alysa Liu and Mariah Bell, the top two women, retired. As did the top ice dance couple of Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue. Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc, last year’s national pairs’ champions, also left the sport.

So, for the first time since 1993, the U.S. Championships feature a reigning national champion in just one of the four disciplines.

Amid all that, U.S. skaters performed well in the fall Grand Prix Series and made the podium in all four disciplines at December’s Grand Prix Final for the first time. Note the absence of Russian skaters, banned from international events due to the war in Ukraine.

At nationals, skaters are vying for spots on the team — three per discipline — for March’s world championships in Japan.

Ilia Malinin, an 18-year-old from Virginia, is the headliner after becoming the first skater to land a quadruple Axel, doing so at all four of his events this season. He ranks second in the world by best total score, a whopping 38.28 points ahead of the next American (Camden Pulkinen).

Jason Brown is the lone Olympian in the men’s field, competing for the first time since placing sixth at the Games.

Isabeau Levito, 15 and a reigning world junior champion like Malinin, took silver at the Grand Prix Final against the world’s other top skaters. She enters nationals with a best score this season 18.13 points better than the next American, Amber Glenn. Bradie Tennell, a 2018 Olympian coming back from foot and ankle injuries, is also a threat to gain one of the three women’s spots at worlds.

Ice dancers Madison Chock and Evan Bates are the lone defending national champions and will likely make the podium for an 11th consecutive year, which would be one shy of the record.

Bates, who last year at 32 became the oldest U.S. champion in any discipline in decades, has made 12 career senior nationals podiums with Chock and former partner Emily Samuelson. It is believed that a 13th finish in the top three would break the U.S. record for a single discipline he currently shares with Michelle Kwan, Nathaniel Niles and Theresa Weld Blanchard.

In pairs, Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier return after missing nationals last year due to Frazier contracting COVID-19 the week of the event. Since, they posted the best U.S. pairs’ finish at an Olympics in 20 years, the first world title for a U.S. pair in 43 years and the first Grand Prix Final medal ever for a U.S. pair.

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2023 U.S. Figure Skating Championships Live Broadcast Schedule

Day Event Time (ET) Platform
Thursday Pairs’ Short Program 3:30-5:45 p.m. Peacock | Skate Order
Rhythm Dance 6:30-9 p.m. Peacock | Skate Order
Rhythm Dance 7-9 p.m. USA Network | STREAM LINK
Women’s Short Program 9:10 p.m.-12 a.m. Peacock | Skate Order
Women’s Short Program 10 p.m.-12 a.m. USA Network | STREAM LINK
Friday Men’s Short Program 4:10-7 p.m. Peacock | Skate Order
Men’s Short Program 5-7 p.m. USA Network
Women’s Free Skate 7:45-11 p.m. Peacock
Women’s Free Skate 8-11 p.m. NBC
Saturday Free Dance 1:45-4:30 p.m. Peacock
Free Dance 2:30-4:30 p.m. NBC
Pairs’ Free Skate 7:30-10 p.m. Peacock | Skate Order
Pairs’ Free Skate 8-10 p.m. USA Network
Sunday Men’s Free Skate 2:30-6 p.m. Peacock
Men’s Free Skate 3-6 p.m. NBC

*All NBC and USA Network broadcasts also stream on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app for subscribers.