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Riverside Water Polo Tournament Sets Foundation For U.S. Women

By Maryann Hudson | May 29, 2014, 6:55 p.m. (ET)

Yujun Sun of China defends against Kami Craig at the London 2012 Olympic Games at Water Polo Arena on Aug. 3, 2012 in London.

Just hours after the U.S. women’s water polo team finished a grueling tournament last week, playing six games in six days against tough international competition, attacker Kaleigh Gilchrist was already back in the water. This time, in the Pacific Ocean.

On a surfboard.

“Fun week of games with @USAWP and made it home in time for a surf!!” she tweeted on her account, @KGilchrist15.

Gilchrist, 22, is one of several new players who helped the United States win five consecutive games against some top-ranked international teams before losing 7-5 in the championship to Australia on Sunday in the FINA Women’s Intercontinental Water Polo Tournament at the Riverside Aquatics Complex at Riverside (California) City College.

The U.S. team beat Japan, Venezuela, Kazakhstan, Canada and China before losing to Australia.  It was the first of three international tournaments the U.S. team will play this summer. The tournament qualified the United States, Australia, Canada, Brazil and China for the FINA World League Super Final next month in China.

“We didn’t get the result we wanted, but up until (Australia game) we were playing well,” said Gilchrist, who is from Newport Beach, California. “A few little things didn’t go our way, but it shows where we are right now and where we want to be by the end of the summer.”

Gilchrist took the day off from training the Friday before the tournament to walk in her graduation ceremony at the University of Southern California. Then she went on to lead the U.S. team with 14 goals in the tournament, giving coach Adam Krikorian something to think about as he whittles down the senior national team and puts together a top-13 team roster.

With the newcomers, and some mainstays, Krikorian also has six veterans from the 2012 Olympic-gold-medal team to draw from, including goalkeeper Betsey Armstrong, 31, and center Kami Craig, 26. Krikorian’s goal at the Riverside tournament was all about blending the old with the new and choosing a group of players to go forward and gain more experience.

“We used last week again as an opportunity for a lot of our young players to get that chance and to play against some of the best teams in the world,” Krikorian said.

“Someone like Betsey Armstrong and Kami Craig ... have had the experience, and it’s more important we get these younger players up to speed, or try to get them up to speed, as quickly as we can with where everyone else is. Until that happens, it’s really hard to progress and move forward as a collect group and make big strides.”

For that reason, Krikorian chose to play goalkeeper EB Keeve, 21, instead of Armstrong in four of the six games, including the title game against Australia. Keeve got the nod right before heading to the pool to start the championship game.

“They were like, ‘EB you’re in,’” Keeve said. “I said, ‘Are you sure? I think you said the wrong name. I think you want to go over that again.’

“I couldn’t believe it. But Betsey told me that I was going to do great. And whenever something would happen in the pool, I could hear her saying, ‘You’ve got this EB, you’ve got this.’”

This tournament was the first time Keeve has played with the senior team against international competition. In fact, Keeve, from Naperville, Illinois, hasn’t played much water polo at all. 

At Waubonsie Valley High School in Aurora, Illinois, she was one of the top breaststrokers in the state, but a series of shoulder injuries left her looking for another sport. She tried water polo for a year, and did okay, she says, but nothing spectacular.

“Arizona State University and a few schools in California saw me because they heard there was a 6-foot-4 goalkeeper,” Keeve said. “They said, ‘Okay, we can’t teach height.’”

Two years later, Keeve had become the starting goalkeeper at ASU and made the U.S. national team. Her real name is Elizabeth, but, as toddlers, her twin brother had trouble pronouncing it, so her family started calling her EB.

“I thought EB did well,” Krikorian said. “She had her moments where her youth and inexperience showed, but she then also had some brilliant moments. The brilliant moments get you excited of the potential of what can be, and those youthful inexperienced moments allow her and all of us to stay humble and realize that there is a lot of work ahead.”

Gilchrist loves water polo but is also a serious surfer. In 2013, she won both the National Scholastic Surfing Association college women’s championship as well as an NCAA title with the USC women’s water polo team. She’s been competing in both sports since she was 10, but this was her first legitimate opportunity with the senior national team.

“I’ve been on the national team, but I’ve never made the top-13,” Gilchrist said. “That’s my goal.  I want to get as many international competitions as I can because I know I’m pretty new to this whole system.”

Krikorian said he’s had his eye on Gilchrist for a while and tried to get her in the process last summer, but she was busy on the professional surfing circuit.

“It’s no surprise by me that she did well in this tournament,” Krikorian said. “She is extremely competitive, she has a unique passion for playing the game and she is a very composed player. 

“She one of those players that you can sense that she enjoys just being in the big moments, for her it’s fun — whether she executes or the team does — but she enjoys the pressure and the excitement of being in those moments.”

Krikorian said he was obviously disappointed in the loss to Australia, but his job is to look at the whole picture. Ahead this summer after the June 10-15 tournament in China, is the FINA World Cup Aug. 12-17 in Russia.

“My job is not just to put the team in position to win, but to prepare the team to be the very best when it matters most,” Krikorian said. “By no means am I saying we didn’t go for it and didn’t want to win that final game (against Australia), but we realized that the short-term priority is (the upcoming tournaments), and then even thinking down the line, to 2015 and 2016.

“I think someone once said, ‘You always must begin with end in mind.’”

Maryann Hudson is a freelance writer from the Houston area. She was previously an investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times. She has written for TeamUSA.org and USParalympics.org since 2012 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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