If you were watching the Opening Ceremony of the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics, you may have seen a frizzy-haired pro surfer from the United States named Kaleigh Gilchrist.
She was a part of the women’s water polo team that dominated the rest of the world and took home the gold.
Being from Newport Beach, Gilchrist grew up surfing competitively against the likes of Lakey Peterson and Courtney Conlogue. She also played water polo, and when it came time to go to college or make a push for the Championship Tour, she decided to go to University of Southern California where she would play water polo.
Now an Olympic gold medalist (and the daughter of an Olympic swimmer), she’s got her sights set on making a run at the Championship Tour, and maybe even being a dual-sport athlete in the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics. We caught up with Gilchrist to talk about Rio and her future goals.
Congratulations. How does it feel to be an Olympic gold medal winner?
Thank you, I’m so stoked! It’s pretty surreal, it’s been a whirlwind since we’ve won.
I haven’t had time to sit and relax and let it sink in. I’m going to try to use that gold card for as long as I can — I already came back home and got some free food from all my local spots.
What was the whole experience in Rio like?
It’s tough, our sport we play every other day. The travel was a little difficult, because we were training at a different facility than the USOC had reserved for us.
So our days off we were traveling there to get there early. So it was a whole chunk of our day, then food and treatment. Before you know it, days were just blending in and flying by.
It was kind of a running joke that we didn’t ever know what the day or date was, like “Is it a game day or a practice day?”
This is the face you make after obtaining your lifelong goal & reaching the pinnacle of sport. The years of sacrifice, commitment & hard work paid off!! What a journey it has been! Thank you to my amazing friends & family for endless amounts of love & support!! And of course thank you to the BEST teammates in the WORLD! 🇺🇸🏅😊 #OlympicChampion #LTD #Rio2016 #GOLD
Did you get to do other things around Rio? Any surfing?
Luckily we went down in November as a team for a practice tournament, so we got all of our sightseeing and touristy stuff flushed out of our system then. So when we went back in August it helped us just buckle down and get to business.
I did surf in November, we just went out off the breakwall in Rio. I borrowed one of my friend’s boards that plays for the Brazilian water polo team. We went for a surf together — it wasn’t that good but it was nice to get in the water.
And then you look back in the distance and it’s just giant mountains and the Christ the Redeemer. Pretty amazing backdrop.
How does surfing help your water polo game and vice versa?
For me, I think the biggest benefit I’ve gotten from surfing is the mental aspect. Water polo is water polo — you’re in the same pool trying to score goals with so many set factors.
With surfing there are so many uncontrollable factors, so that’s prepared me to be one of the most composed girls on the team. Through surfing and having those unknowable variables has helped me stay in the moment to be focused and composed.
What’s one thing you didn’t know until you actually experience the Olympics?
Everyone kind of talks about how the world comes together for sport, but being a part of it is when I realized how true that actually is. Walking through the Opening Ceremony I was getting chills because the entire U.S. team is chatting U-S-A!
It was like the world stopped for two weeks, and despite everyone’s differences we came together and celebrated sports and competition.
Any chance you’ll try to qualify for double sports in 2020 with water polo and surfing?
[Laughs] That’s the goal. I haven’t really been surfing competitively for the last year, so we’ll see how that goes. Plus we’ll see how the qualifying procedures play out for the Olympics.
But I’ve definitely learned through this experience that you should set your goals high and don’t stop till you get there.
Maybe I’ll see everyone in Tokyo in 2020. I definitely want to be there, hopefully for surfing, but if that doesn’t work out maybe I’ll hop back on the water polo train.
My dad actually swam in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, so I think it’d be pretty special to be there for either sport for me. He was a swimmer, he swam for Canada in ’64 and ’68.
I signed up for the Costa Rica, Japan and an Australia contests so far. It’ll help me keep busy after coming back from the Games. I’m going to try to do the entire Qualifying Series in 2017 and reevaluate after that and see how things go.
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