Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Tigress Athletics

The Olympic video hadn't stopped playing on the board, and TigerBlog hadn't read one word yet of his script over the PA system.

Already, though, the crowd was cheering wildly for the woman at midfield.

Ashleigh Johnson is back at Princeton after a summer in which she led the United States to a gold medal at the Rio Olympics in women's water polo. And there she was Saturday night, at halftime of the football game against Lafayette, being honored on Powers Field at Princeton Stadium.

First there was a video tribute to all 13 of Princeton's Olympians, including bronze medalist Diana Matheson (women's soccer) and silver medalist Gevvie Stone (rowing). When it ended, TigerBlog had a few sentences to read about Johnson, though he's pretty sure that not a single word of it was necessary, since everyone in attendance seemed to already know who she was and what she had done.

This spring, when Johnson again takes to DeNunzio Pool to play with the Princeton women's water polo team, she will become only the second athlete in school history to win and Olympic gold medal and then return to school to compete as a Tiger.

The first? Bill Bradley, who won men's basketball gold in Tokyo in 1964. Maybe it's fitting that they are the two who share that accomplishment, because it's very likely that they are the greatest male and greatest female athletes in Princeton history.

As halftime continued Saturday night, Johnson posed for pictures and signed autographs. Lots and lots of them. TB has no idea how many people got their picture taken with her, but he does know that she didn't say no to anyone.

Yeah, she's a very, very special one.

And TB's statement about the best athletes in Princeton history? On the men's side, there's Bradley, Dick Kazmaier and Hobey Baker.

The women's side has always been much more wide open.

Women's athletics at Princeton date back less than 50 years, as opposed to more than 150 for men's athletics, but Princeton's women athletes have more than made up for the lost time. Princeton has an incredible record across the board in women's athletics, including a ridiculous 10 Ivy League championships by women's teams alone in 2015-16. That's the first time, by the way, that a school has been in double figures in Ivy titles in a single gender in one academic year.

Ashleigh Johnson is the most recent Princeton woman to win an Olympic medal. Do you know who the first was?

Her name is Carol Brown, and she won a bronze medal in rowing in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.

Brown was part of a symposium last week at the Chicago Princeton Club entitled "Tigress Athletics: Princeton, Olympics and Beyond."

The moderator of the event was University of Chicago Director of Athletics Erin McDermott, who spent more than a decade on the staff here at Princeton and who during that time became an extraordinarily well-respected person on this campus. As an undergraduate, McDermott played basketball at Hofstra.

Erin was joined on the panel by Brown and more recent Tigers Meg Bowen and Cheryl Stevens from the basketball program and Jen Hoy from the soccer program.

The evening focused on the incredible success of Princeton's women's teams, with a particular focus on the success of the women athletes beyond Princeton, either in the Olympics (where there have been 34) or professionally (where there have been 16).

There was more to the conversation than just that, though. There were really good questions raised about the kinds of women's athletes who attend Princeton and how does Princeton turn out such high quality teams year after year.

Brown, a 1975 grad and one of the pioneers of women's athletics, talked about how prior to Title IX, the law in Illinois banned girls from playing high school sports. And how when she got to Princeton, women weren't permitted in the weight room.

It's nothing that the other three Princeton athletes could possibly relate to, given their experience here four decades later. Stevens was on the first women's basketball team that went to the NCAA, which means she was part of a program that went from 7-23 to 26-3.

Bowen? She was on teams that played in four NCAA tournaments in four years. Hoy? She played in the NCAA tournament and was the Ivy League Player of the Year.

The weight room? Yeah, they were all allowed in. Actually their attendance there was mandatory.

Practice facilities? Athletic training? Uniforms? Travel? Publicity? There was never even the remotest thought by anyone who works here that these are things that should be reserved only for the men.

Events like the one last week are important in many ways, not the least of which is to serve as a reminder that it wasn't always that way. It took a lot of effort from a lot of people to make it so, and TB has incredible respect for the early women athletes of Princeton, who laid the groundwork for what exists today.

Carol Brown brought her bronze medal with her to the event. Ashleigh Johnson wore her gold medal on the field Saturday night.

Without one, there never would have been the other.


Anonymous said...

Ashleigh Johnson is the reigning FINA women's water polo player of the year -- not college water polo player of the year, but any level of water polo around the world. Forget just comparing her to the lofty precedents among Princeton athletes. How many college athletes anywhere in any team sport, male or female, were the best worldwide player in their sport at any level?

Susan Glockner said...

So awesome. Women's water polo has come so far. I was captain of the women's water polo team in 1985 as a goalie no where near in ability or stature as Ashleigh. When I graduated only one woman on the team had even played the sport before starting Princeton and did so on her high school boys team because there were not girls teams. Despite that and being only funded as a club varsity sport (i.e. not really much but we were allowed to use Dillon pool from 9:30-11PM 4 nights a week from Jan to March), even though we were the only women's team and thus competed against the other college varsity teams (or their club first team if like us no varsity team was funded), we unofficially won the Ivy League by beating them all since there was no tournament. Our loss to Slippery Rock (hey at least it was a close game that year), the 1980's women's water polo powerhouse on the east coast, was the only loss which prevented us from being invited to a prestigious tournament in California. Oh, yea forgot to mention we had no funds for a coach or travel. The men's team (which was varsity) nicely let us share their coach for some of our practices and most of our games which we appreciated very much and the guys sometimes would fill in. We paid for our own transportation, stayed at alum and friend's houses and even had a blast staying with the Brown girls in someone's beach cottage in Rhode Island.

I was so inspired by Ashleigh and the women's water polo's history that I've watched them play in San Diego a couple of times and dragged my husband and kids to Rio to watch the entire gold medal match and ceremony (it was worth missing our pre - purchased tickets for the women's Olympic final match which overlapped the water polo). My husband (also '85 and daughter '16 who knows Ashleigh slightly from school) and I debated about giving the Women's Water Polo check a Tiger locomotive after they won, but figured joining USA chant was more appropriate.

If there are enough Tigress Olympic or professional athletes in San Diego to hold a similar conference to the outstanding one offered in Chicago, please let me know. I'm starting up the Princeton Women's Network here and would love to host this sort of event