LOS ANGELES -- Surfers are supposed to be laid back people by nature, but Southern California senior Kaleigh Gilchrist prides herself on being extremely motivated.
The captain of the USC women’s water polo team Gilchrist has been able to balance, school, water polo and an impressive surfing career, but feels like she has only begun to show what she can accomplish.
A product of the water, both ocean and chlorine filled, Gilchrist comes from swimming royalty. Her father, Sandy was on USC’s swimming team from 1964-1968 so she was exposed to the pool at an early age.
“I started when I was young, my parents took me to the pool early nd I did swim team in Newport Beach [California] and it was fun, but I got hooked on water polo when I was eight. My best friend in third grade was playing and his parents told my parents they should sign me up.”
Even though her father was a standout swimmer, he didn’t push his daughter into the sport.
“I think he encouraged me to play sports, it didn’t have to be swimming,” Gilchrist said. “I’m not the fastest swimmer and he always jokes around about that. I was playing flag football, basketball, swimming, water polo, surfing so I think the sports came natural.”
It didn’t long for Gilchrist to devote herself to water polo.
“I definitely got hooked on water polo,” Gilchrist said. “I enjoyed the aspect of the team and it was a lot more fun than swimming up and down the pool. I signed up for 10 and under at Newport Aquatics and loved it immediately.”
Surfing was more of an accidental sport. With school out for the summer and her mom desperate for some quiet time around the house, she enrolled her daughter in famed surfer, Corky Carroll’s surf school in nearby Huntington Beach.
“I was too young to do junior lifeguards like my sister and my mom wanted me out of the house,” Gilchrist said. “Me and a couple of buddies did Corky Carroll’s surf camp.”
Unlike water polo though, Gilchrist didn’t take to the sport right away.
“I kind of hated it at first,” Gilchrist said. “It was boring and the waves were kind of big and I didn’t really like it. My mom had to drag me there.”
The then 10-year-old noticed when she was away from the waves she missed it terribly and couldn’t wait to get back to the beach.
“I took a break and then all my buddies were surfing on the weekends,” Gilchrist said. “I saw that they were having fun and I didn’t want to be left out.”
So began the delicate balance of participating in two sports that were vastly different from each other, the only similarity being they involved water.
“What I liked about water polo was I think the intensity and the team aspect and working for each other,” Gilchrist said. “Surfing is just awesome because you are in the ocean with nature being so fun. You call it a sport but for me it’s a passion hanging out in the water.”
Gilchrist noticed the more she was among the waves, the better she was getting, but she wasn’t a natural like water polo.
“I definitely had to work at surfing to get good at it,” Gilchrist said. “It wasn’t like water polo where I seemed to be competitive right away.”
Helping her get better were the boys she often competed against. She was on the boys surf team at Newport Harbor High School and constantly got called to surf in other boy’s competitions.
“I competed with the boys when I was younger in water polo and in surfing,” Gilchrist said. “I am so competitive that when I saw a boy do something I wanted to do it as well.”
It didn’t take long for others to notice Gilchrist’s ability to excel in surfing.
“I got a call from Peter Townsend and he wanted me to try out for the USA Surf Team when I was 14,” Gilchrist said. “I didn’t really want to go but my mom was like you should go, you have to try. So I did and before you know it I made the team and was able to go to Portugal and compete.”
Before you got to USC she was traveling all around the world, surfing in competitions in places like Indonesia and Fiji, two of her favorite spots.
She was accomplished at both water polo and surfing when she enrolled at USC, but her first semester didn’t work out the way she thought, not playing as much as she wanted on the water polo team.
“I wasn’t fully committed to it and I was wondering if I really wanted to do this,” Gilchrist said. “I think after I got a taste of playing and the whole university lifestyle I knew I was going to be here until I graduated.”
Now as she ends her senior season, she has plans to play on the National Water Polo Team as well as compete in some premier surfing contests. Her goal is to win an Olympic gold medal and a world championship in surfing.
“That would be the perfect situation,” Gilchrist said. “That would be the ultimate. I think if I won a gold medal it would be time to commit more to surfing because I have been putting it on the back burner for so long. I would like to see what I could do and how far I could go.”