Team USA has had an incredible showing at this year’s Olympic Games in Rio. At time of publication, the US has raked in 37 golds (13 more than Great Britain in second) and 103 total medals (just under double the next highest total). Add women’s water polo to the list. The Americans didn’t just win their final match, they absolutely demolished the Italians with a final score of 12-5, cementing them as the first women’s water polo team to win back-to-back gold.
Instrumental in that victory was one Kaleigh Gilchrist, who is also a professional surfer and also happens to be an Inertia contributor.
Olympic athletes represent the pinnacle of achievement in their respective sport. That’s why it’s not only impressive, but downright otherworldly that Kaleigh has a history of competing at such a high level in not just one but two sports.
Before going to school and playing water polo at USC, she was selected for the USA surf team and won consecutive U18 Surfing America USA Championships in 2009 and 2010.
Choosing to focus on water polo in college was a difficult transition. “October my freshman year, I’m sitting in my dorm room watching Lakey, Courtney and Sage Erickson pursuing a professional surfing career, traveling the world for free, winning contests, living this lavish lifestyle with sponsorships,” she told ESPN. “And here I am: hating water polo, struggling, knowing that I could be if not exactly where they were, then close. That was probably the toughest time I had to deal with both of my sports. I was miserable.” She would ultimately become team captain. But at that moment, Kaleigh was uncertain. She even wrote an email to her coach saying she wanted to quit that she never sent.
The choice between water polo and surfing came up again in 2013, after graduating from college. Coach Adam Krikorian invited Kaleigh to try out for the national water polo team. She had already made up her mind, though, that she’d surf a few events on the WQS and make a qualification run for the women’s world tour. “I already had all my surf contests booked, in France and Peru,” she told ESPN. “I never planned on doing the national team.” But after a few less-than-stellar results, she reached back out to Coach Krikorian to see if the invitation was still open. It was.
Krikorian says she’s an integral part of the team dynamic. “I would equate her to a Magic Johnson-type, someone who can see the whole pool, who doesn’t have that tunnel vision, who can always find the open player,” Krikorian told NBC, “and the one thing that I truly love about her and why she’s really important for us is that she’s got a great demeanor and a great composure to herself when she plays.”
Apparently it’s surfing that gives her that composure. She reportedly surfs three times per week. And apparently, Kaleigh can’t wait to get back to the waves. “Everything happens for a reason and I am exactly where I want to be right now,” she told NBC in June. “But August 20th I am going to be a surfer, hopefully.”
As an Olympic athlete, Kaleigh’s also excited for surfing to join the list of events:
Maybe by 2020 we’ll be watching her make history on the USA Olympic surf team. Or maybe surfing and water polo! Who know