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Making waves: Now a two-time gold medalist in water polo, Gilchrist also a talented surfer

By Jack Johnson, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication | Aug. 08, 2021, 7:08 p.m. (ET)

U.S. water polo attacker Kaleigh Gilchrist poses with her gold medal from the 2020 Olympic Games.

Kaleigh Gilchrist (USC, water polo) had her left arm around attacker Paige Hauschild (USC, water polo). In her right hand, she clasped onto the forearm of defender Alys Williams (UCLA, water polo). She looked down and made eye contact with Ashleigh Johnson (Princeton, water polo), the starting goalkeeper.

The TV cameras caught them as they embraced, and then tilted their heads to the rafters of the Tatsumi Water Polo Center, screaming the sound of pure jubilation.

For the Team USA women’s water polo team, there was little doubt about the outcome during its 14-5 gold medal victory over Spain. But for Gilchrist, her presence on this team was not always so certain. 

When Gilchrist stepped onto the USC campus for the first time as a Trojans athlete in the fall of 2010, she had all the qualifications of someone who could contribute right away to a women’s water polo program that was coming off back-to-back national titles.

But she was also a talented amateur surfer coming off back-to-back titles in the USA Surfing Championship under 18 category. Although water polo took her to USC, she was unsure whether she wanted to continue playing the sport.

“I saw all my friends just traveling the world and surfing professionally with endorsements, and I was like, ‘What am I doing here stuck in my dorm room in L.A.?’” Gilchrist said before the Games. 

Gilchrist was born into a family that already had one Olympian. Her father, Sandy Gilchrist, swam for Canada in the Tokyo Games in 1964 and the Mexico City Olympics in 1968. Before following in her father’s footsteps to the Olympics, she followed him to USC, where he swam from 1964 to 1968. 

The coaching staff at USC saw potential in Gilchrist and encouraged her to stay with the sport. She credits Jovan Vavic, then the coach of the Trojans, for teaching her resilience and commitment. 

By her junior year, Gilchrist was a two-time national champion and one of the best players on her team. When she achieved her highest tally of 45 goals, it caught the attention of Adam Krikorian, the coach of the U.S. women’s water polo team. She received an invite to try out for the 2012 team heading to the London Olympics

Finally, Gilchrist saw a future in water polo beyond college. 

“At that time when I was 18, I wasn’t really dreaming of going to the Olympics,” Gilchrist said. “By the end of my junior year, I got invited by Adam, and I thought, ‘This is doable, I can make this happen.’”

Gilchrist graduated from USC in 2014. Two years later, she was on the Olympic water polo team at the Rio Games. Her first Olympic experience netted Gilchrist her first gold medal. 

But surfing was never far from the mind of Gilchrist, and those endorsements she had pushed off to attend college came to her in spades as she hit the professional ranks. One such partnership came with West Coast University.

Bob May, the executive director of philanthropy at WCU, was effusive in his praise of Gilchrist in an email exchange. 

“Kaleigh is a wonderful representative of the American Dream,” May said. “I expect, especially during these challenging times of COVID, it is even more impressive and motivational in seeing what Kaleigh is accomplishing. She is a role model for many and our pride in supporting her could not be higher.”
In 2017, Gilchrist took a break from water polo to pursue surfing full time. But the pull of competing in a team atmosphere was missing, and she rejoined a year later, a decision Gilchrist says she was “so glad” she made. 

Now, Gilchrist is a two-time Olympic gold medalist. In the victory over Spain, she scored two goals and assisted on another. While in Tokyo, she kept close tabs on the inaugural surfing competition. She hopes to level up her professional career after the Games by qualifying for the World Surf Championship Tour. 

If Gilchrist can accomplish that goal, it will set her on the path to becoming not only a multiple Olympian, but a multi-sport Olympian, something Gilchrist is not ruling out. 

“Who knows, maybe down the road that might be something I look forward to doing,” Gilchrist said. 

The U.S. has already met Kaleigh Gilchrist, the Olympic water polo player in Rio and Tokyo. 

Perhaps for the 2024 Games in Paris, the country will get to meet Kaleigh Gilchrist, the Olympic surfer. 

Jack Johnson, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication

Jack Johnson is a journalism student at Arizona State University. This story is part of a collaboration between the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee and ASU's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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