Kaleigh Gilchrist is not your average human. The grinning, wild-haired powerhouse is an endless source of water-based talent and limitless optimism. At just 29, the Newport Beach, California, has competed on the WSL Qualifying Series since 2008, but it's in the pool where she really thrives. No, not wave pools. Gilchrist is currently in Tokyo, where she's swimming, shooting and egg-beatering her way toward what she hopes will be her second Olympic Gold as a member of the United State's Women's Waterpolo Team.
The highly-decorated, top-scoring University of Southern California grad and former team captain who led the Trojans to NCAA national titles, executes everything she does with flawless poise, including her pursuit of dual athletic professions. The pro-surfer-slash-pro water-polo-player is unwilling to sacrifice one sport for the other. Her mind boggling multi-tasking skills are a thing of admiration and leave everyone wondering how this All-American, Player of the Week, Player of the Year, World Cup Gold Medalist, NSSA College and NSSA High School National champ (there's even more!) does it.
"Balance is something you are always trying to reach, but is never truly attainable. That's why you need people to keep you honest throughout your journey," Gilchrist told the WSL before the start of the Olympics Games. "It's taken me a long time to learn how to prioritize what's most important while still giving energy and time to other aspects of life."
Chief among Gilchrist's truth-telling inner circle is her dad. A two-time Olympic swimmer himself, dad and daughter are bonded by the similar experience and, following her team's win in the Rio Olympics, hugging her family was what Gilchrist describes as the moment she feels most proud of.
Gilchrist has also joined up with former USA teammate Kami Craig and together they launched Camps4Champs, a Southern California-based non-profit aimed at turning time in the pool into female empowerment and esteem building for growing girls.
"I've been blessed with the opportunities I've been given," says Gilchrist with omnipresent humility.
Gilchrist has a deep understanding of what a blessed life looks like, beyond the hashtags and overused sayings. In 2019, she faced with her own mortality in a harrowing brush with death. While on a team trip in Seoul, South Korea, Gilchrist was among several others gathered on a balcony that abruptly collapsed. Gilchrist managed to survive, but her leg was severely injured. Not everyone was as lucky. Two lives were lost in tragedy and many others were badly injured. Still, perennially positive Gilchrist attributes her lightheartedness to the event.
"I know now more than ever that life can be taken so quickly so it's important to live in the present, laugh a lot and love a lot," she says.
Gilchrist brings the upbeat attitude with her, as she and her teammates play to defend their gold medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
"I like to believe I bring a source of energy and perspective to the team and give them someone to look to in stressful situations. Composure," Gilchrist explains.
But the U.S. Women's Water Polo squad will have their work cut out for them. They just dropped their first game in 13 years in a hard-fought loss to Hungry. And while they remain favorites to medal, for the first time in a long time they've shown they're beatable.
Gilchrist has also been enjoying watching surfing's Olympic debut go down. Very familiar with the U.S. surfing program, as a grom coming up in Orange County she was part of the progression.
"I had the privilege of being a part of the U.S. Surf Team from 2006 to 2011 and am an athlete rep today," she says. "It's been so awesome seeing the sport get into the Olympics."
Gilchrist's most recent surf contest stat was a defeat by now-Olympic surfer Caroline Marks, in 2019's Florida Pro, but the dual-talent understands the complementary nature that can come from training for both sports.
"[My mindset while playing water polo] is very similar to my competitive surfing mindset," Gilchrist explains. "Surfing has way more outside variables than water polo, such as wind, swell, judges, tides, lay days, priority, et cetera that if you allow your mind to get caught up in them you will lose focus on what you can actually do to put yourself in the best position to succeed."
How Gilchrist and the U.S. women fair over the next week of competition remains unknown, but when it's all said and done, she'll be sure to enjoy some overdue, hard-earned relaxation time -- surfing included.
"I get refreshed from surfing and spending time with loved ones, so it's important I find time to do this," she says.
And as far as her competitive surfing aspirations, the go-getter teased, "After water polo, we'll see what happens. I've learned to never say ‘never'!"