Recently I had a chance to catch up with Newport Beach native and USC Alum, Kaleigh Gilcrist. A lifelong athlete, and a young lady who is definitely entrenched in the Southern California lifestyle. To say she excelled at sports is an understatement. From a young age her competitive spirit has shined bright, from her days leading her water polo team at Newport Harbor to numerous championships and titles while ripping breaks up and down the coast and winning several contest surfing against girls who are now among the best in the world.
As a student athlete at USC Kaleigh made the decision to focus on water polo, where she would become the team captain and help lead the program to a national championship. She was not only a national champion, but an All- American selection as well. There was no doubt that she was one of the best in the game and had a bright future ahead of her.
In surfing, Kaleigh won many national championships, including being a back to back 18 and under national champion, as well as first in the American Pro Surf Series. One of her biggest feats came just about a month after her team won a national title in water polo, as Kaleigh surfed her way to an individual national championship, earning her way to first place at the NSSA College National championships!
This past summer, Kaleigh helped lead Team USA Water Polo to a gold medal at the Olympics in Rio, Brazil. She was one of the best performers for the national team as she and her teammates cruised to gold. As an attacker Kaleigh scored big for team USA when in counted en rout to an Olympic finals berth against Italy. Now, after winning gold in Rio, Kaliegh will shift her plans for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo to surfing. As a two sport athlete it is tough enough, but competing at a world championship level brings different challenges from training and maintenance of both body and mind to logistics and travel. Balance and a great backbone of coaches, trainers friends and family to help navigate everything is vital in the success of any athlete. Kaleigh was able to give me some candid insight on here achievements, mindset ,and future as she looks to find gold again, this time as a surfer!
What was your mindset in Rio? As you know myself and countless others followed you and team USA water polo throughout the Olympic Games. You looked like you were taking in the experience and really enjoying every moment from opening ceremony, throughout, but once you hit the water, it was obvious that you were very focused and your intensity level was high. What was it like to prepare and to change gears with so much on the line when it was time to compete, yet find time to enjoy the experience and have some fun?
Our team and myself have always done a good job of enjoying the moment. We travel all over the world to play a sport we love. This sport gave us an opportunity to be on the Worlds biggest stage at the Olympic Games. I remind myself to take a step back and realize how fortunate we are. It’s all about perspective in my eyes! Our team did a great job preparing both mentally and physically. Knowing we out worked and prepared more than our opponents made the games less stressful and more enjoyable. We took care of what we needed to do prior so all we had to do was have fun playing! Needless to say once it was game time we were focused and ready.
Since coming home a gold medalist what if anything has changed for you?
I don’t think it’s necessarily changed me, but it’s definitely a weird feeling coming home from the Olympics. Being an Olympic Champion has been a life long dream for me. The two weeks at the Games were the most incredible weeks of my life. There’s just something special about the Olympics and the Olympic spirit during those few weeks every four years that’s tough to describe! And then you come home and it’s almost like now what? It’s going from 100 to 0. And if anyone knows me, my 0 is still other people’s 100 haha. I’ve been non stop busy since the moment I landed. A mixture of media events and some fun celebratory trips. It’s only been about a month since we won a gold medal so the Olympic hype is still around. But there’s almost a sense of emptiness knowing that I may never be apart of something so special again. It’s hard and almost sounds selfish because I truly am so unbelievably happy for this achievement and it’s been incredible sharing the medal with so many friends and family that have supported me throughout my entire career, but somethings off. Whatever it is it’s taught me that regardless of the sport (hopefully surfing) I want to be competing in Tokyo 2020.
Do you plan to continue in both water polo and surfing, and if so do you see an opportunity to qualify for both sports in 2020?
Unfortunately, the time commitment and demand for water polo is extreme and we compete almost the entire two weeks during the games so I don’t think I could pull off both sports. My plan is to compete in surfing and go after a dream that I’ve had to put on hold for so long. In a year or so I’ll reevaluate everything and make a decision with what sport I want to try and compete in 2020. It’s tough because I still love water polo and have a deep passion for the sport and the team aspect, but surfing is something special and I’ve had to put it on the back burner for years now. I need to know for myself on just how good I can be at surfing. I’ll be doing everything possible in the next year to excel at surfing.
Both surfing and water polo take somewhat different approaches as far as competing. Is it a challenge to transition between both?
I’ve learned when you get to a high level of competitive sport that the approach is somewhat similar. In my opinion the mental aspect is what separates the good from the great. I’ve used things I’ve learned from surfing in water polo and from water polo in surfing. I’m excited for my transition into surfing.
How soon can we expect to see you back in the ocean surfing competitively?
I’ve actually signed up for three QS events in October and November. Costa Rica, Japan and Australia. I don’t have any points so it may be tough to get in to all of them, but I’m hoping to compete before the year ends.
Are you planning a full QS schedule in the coming year with hope of qualifying for the CT?
Yes my plan for 2017 is to do the full QS with the goal of qualifying. If I’ve learned anything in the past few years it’s that success takes time and I need to be patient. I haven’t competed in awhile and I know there will be a lot of bumps on the road. But I’m excited for the challenges that lie ahead of me.
From what you have seen, what will your challenges be on the QS and potentially on the CT?
I think my challenges on the QS will be the different wave conditions. I’m more of a power surfer so smaller waves have always been a struggle for me. I know that some of the contests aren’t at the best locations so smaller waves is something I will focus on during my training. And if I ever have an opportunity to compete on the CT, I know that the girls are ripping and charging. I’ve got a lot of work cut out for me.
What are your favorite breaks?
A good Newport day with my buddies out is my favorite! But I love lowers and have been fortunate enough to have surfed some pretty good waves around the globe.
What message would you like to convey to younger up and coming athletes?
Everyone has the potential to reach greatness, but what are you going to do to reach that potential? You have to make sacrifices, dig a little deeper and work a little harder every single day. Surround yourself with a good support system and never give up. The challenges are what make the successes that much more rewarding. But most importantly, make sure you love and have a deep passion for what you are doing.
Kaleigh will be starting her new journey as she picks up on the WSL QS tour in Costa Rica at the Essential Costa Rica Open. The event runs from October 5th through 9th..