Kaleigh Gilchrist manages two dreams -- in two very different sports
It's not easy to be doubly gifted. Ask Kaleigh Gilchrist. The 23-year-old from Newport Beach, California, has been caught in a two-sport tug-of-war since she was 14 because her talents in surfing and water polo were recognized almost simultaneously.
This summer in Rio, Gilchrist will likely help the U.S. women's water polo team win back-to-back Olympic gold. She was already a part of the U.S. team that won gold last year at the world championships and, in 2013, she captained the University of Southern California team to the NCAA crown.
Yet in high school, Gilchrist won the most prestigious U.S. amateur surfing title (the Surfing America USA Championship) -- twice -- by beating the country's best surfers under 18, including Courtney Conlogue (currently No. 1 in the world) and Lakey Peterson (No. 6 in the world last year).
Even now, despite playing for the most dominant water polo team on the planet, Gilchrist's board is always on her mind. "I'm still doing surf contests here and there," she said. "People think I'm insane."
In a way, it's just an extension of college when Gilchrist would wake at 6 a.m., drive through L.A. traffic, surf at Manhattan Beach, return to campus, play water polo, and repeat -- even during "hell month," between two four-hour practices.
She sounds nonchalant about it now. Probably because she's used to it. From the beginning, Gilchrist has resisted the pressure to specialize. It was never easy, though.
At 14, Gilchrist got a random call from Peter Townend, the head coach of the USA Surf Team, suggesting she attend tryouts in Huntington Beach. "I didn't know what it was all about. I didn't really want to go, and my mom's like, 'You gotta go.'"
At the end of trials, Townend named her to the five-member girls' team -- the best in America. "I thought, 'Oh, maybe I am kind of good at this,' and before you know it, I'm on a plane to Portugal for my first ISA World Surf contest."
Also that year, Newport Harbor High School water polo coach Bill Barnett put her on the varsity team as a freshman -- a prestigious selection. Barnett had coached three U.S. Olympic men's teams and was in his 40th year at Newport. "He had a reputation as being really hard on players," Gilchrist said, "so in eighth grade going into freshman year, I was always hearing, 'Oh, you're gonna have to choose one sport or the other.' At that point, I'm not ready to give up either."
Somehow, they worked out a deal, and she was allowed to miss some morning workouts in the off-season to be with the surf team. Then, right in the middle of her senior year, the biggest contest of the year fell in January. It was the International Surfing Association (ISA) World Junior Championships in Piha Beach, New Zealand.
"I was so scared to ask," Gilchrist said. "If he said no, I would have been devastated."
Not only did Barnett say, "Go," but he followed her heats online which, she said, surprised a lot of people. Gilchrist finished ninth in the world that year.
Hating water polo
After she graduated from high school in 2010, she says, "People told me I had to pick again, and of course, my stubborn self said, 'Screw that, I'm still going to excel at both sports,' even though my water polo coach at USC, Jovan Vavic, sure didn't want me to. He just drilled on us."
Playing collegiate water polo was intense. Members of the team were required to watch video in their free time, complete water polo homework, keep binders full of plays, scouting, and feedback, take water polo tests, and, at one point, write an essay about books about trust. This was on top of playing water polo 4 to 5 hours a day, and all while Gilchrist was transitioning to college, trying to have a social life and living away from home for the first time.
"I hated it. I wanted to quit," she says.
"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. 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."
In addition, Gilchrist wasn't even allowed to play at the first tournament of the year. "I had to be a video girl, videoing games up at the Stanford Invitational," she said. "I was like: What the heck am I doing being a video girl? I know I could play with these girls. Jovan ... didn't know about my commitment level. I didn't know about my commitment level. One time, I left his office bawling, so confused on what I wanted to do."
When she was invited to the 18-and-over ISA World Championships in Peru that same October, Gilchrist asked if she could miss two weeks of school and practice.
The response? Terrifying. "The things he said, screaming -- now looking back on it, I know it's all just from love and passion. He wants you to be the best you can be."
She immediately knew she could never miss school or water polo for surfing. But regaining her love for water polo came gradually.
After watching the team from the bench, she finally thought, "Look I got this. I know how this sport works. I want to be in that pool in the fourth quarter with these girls."
Throughout her freshman year, Gilchrist slowly worked her way up: earning more and more playing time and, finally, that March against Cal, USC had even created Kaleigh's Play, a post-up for Gilchrist after the other team scored.
"That game, it all clicked," she said. "I was like, 'Crap, I really do love this sport. I want to play water polo. Now I'm forever grateful because I know I wouldn't have been the same player and person I am today without going through that."
"But I was still surfing 3 or 4 or 5 times a week."
A mini detour
By 2013, Gilchrist knew she would retire and surf the World Qualifying Series tour right after college. So of course, that's when U.S. water polo coach Adam Krikorian invited her to try out for the national team. "I already had all my surf contests booked, in France and Peru," she said. "I never planned on doing the national team."
At the risk of eliminating the option, she e-mailed him to say, "Hey, I've got to take this summer off. I just want to pursue my surf career and make sure it's the right choice. I'd love to be invited back in the fall."
Her surf results that summer weren't spectacular. Luckily, Krikorian invited her back.
"When I got that second chance I knew I had to commit to water polo," she says.
Still, surfing awaits
The dream now, she said, is to make the Olympic team, win gold, then commit 100 percent to surfing and try to qualify for the World Championship Tour. Until then, Gilchrist catches waves at least three days a week and is trying to get better at knowing when to back off. "If it's small," she says of the surf, "I'm going to give my body time to rest. But if there's good swell, then I might have to jump in and get a couple."
Looking ahead, she says, "I am definitely a little nervous to see if all the years I've put surfing on the back burner will bite me in the butt on the world tour -- or if I can still bounce back and be at the level I want to be. Hopefully everything goes as planned."