What does it take to become an Olympic Gold Medalist as a dual sport career athlete?
Feeling overwhelmed from being pulled in too many directions has become a way of life for many people. Others however, excel by being challenged on two fronts. Kaleigh Gilchrist has been in a tug-of-war from an early age, seeking to find a balance that enables her to pursue careers in both water polo and surfing.
The surfing champion and water polo Olympic gold medalist, seems in control as she has found and maintained balance of the demands her two “careers” have on her life. As an athlete, Kaleigh remains focused and comfortable with her sense of self even while growing up in our disruptive digital age. And while remaining authentic to herself, she understands the power a team can generate in pursuit of a goal. In a heartfelt talk with Face the Current, Kaleigh tells her story on what it takes to become an Olympic Gold Medalist as a dual sport career athlete.
Sasha Frate: With an Olympic gold medal and NCAA title with USC in water polo, much of your life is spent in the water… You’re also ranked #65 on the World Qualifying Tour in surfing! Though both are water sports, they’re fairly different worlds. How have you managed to live, breathe, and succeed in both?
Kaleight Gilchrist: My whole life has been about balance. Whether it’s academics, athletics, or socially, I find that my best self is when I am living a balanced life. With that being said, it’s not always easy and sometimes people, and myself, question if I could have been the best in one sport if I completely committed to it, but then I realize how fortunate I am to travel and meet amazing people through both of my sports.Things I have learned in surfing I’ve used in water polo and vice versa.Through the years of experience, I’ve been a little smarter during “crunch time” to focus on a certain sport.
SF: Your initial personal success in both surfing and water polo happened almost simultaneously, at about 14 years old. In a youth sports culture that tends towards earlier and earlier specialization, you chose both. What kind of support did you have in that decision, and what were the costs and/or challenges in your pursuit of a dual sport career?
KG: I actually played numerous sports when I was young. Skateboarding, snowboarding, flag football, basketball, water polo and surfing to be exact. I think it was crucial in my development as an athlete. One of my better traits in water polo is my vision, being one step ahead of my opponents. I think this is because of playing and watching sports
at a young age. The decision to pursue surfing and water polo was rather easy. My high school water polo coach, Coach Barnett, and I worked out a pretty good deal that allowed me to miss a few water polo practices in off-season to make surf team practices. Without his support of my two sports, I don’t think I would be the athlete I am today. Of course, I missed out on good surf and some trips because of my water polo commitment, but in reality it was a pretty balanced career in highschool.
SF: Statistics have revealed that ‘growing up digital’ has made it increasingly difficult for our youth to find their identity. Douglas Rushkoff has even coined the term “digiphrenia” with more versions of “self” than ever before. It’s “the experience of trying to exist in more than one incarnation of yourself at the same time. There’s your Twitter profile, your Facebook profile, your email inbox. All of these sort of multiple instances of you are operating simultaneously and in parallel. And that’s not a really comfortable position for most human beings.” What is your take on this, and how would you advise anyone struggling with “digiphrenia” to navigate through this and hone in on his or her sense of “self?”
KG: As an athlete and someone who is trying to grow their social presence, I understand the demands. It can be a full-time job, but I just like to use it as a platform to share my journey with others in hopes of inspiring them. I think it is important to be authentic on every social platform. If you are your “real self,” then you don’t have to stress about different profiles. I, of course, use different platforms for different reasons; in email, you find my more professional side, Twitter is more news related, Facebook is friends and family and I use Instagram the most to share my journey and happenings. With that being said, my tone and what I am trying to post and get across doesn’t change much because of my authenticity.
I think authenticity isn’t stressed enough in our culture. Everyone has something special to add, yet we are scared to be ourselves. The best teams I have been on are those where everyone is themselves. We created a comfortable enough atmosphere and everyone took the courage to be them self. If I can add any advice it’s don’t be afraid to be YOU.
SF: You mention the ‘power of a team’ with your Team USA and USC teammates. What have you gained from this ‘power’ and how does being part of a team translate into life outside sports?
KG: This “power” has given me so much. It has molded me into the individual I am today. It has given me lifelong friends, mentors, memories, travel around the world, an education, NCAA championship, a gold medal and so much more.This power has taught me the importance of commitment, sacrifice, hard work and dreaming big. I will never be able to thank my teammates and my sports enough.
I believe sports translate directly into life. Setting goals and not stopping until you get there. I’ve become a more graceful and compassionate person because of the experiences that athletics has given me. I miss the team daily, so I’ve tried to replicate a new team like atmosphere in surfing. “Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.”
SF: You recently ran a half- marathon to raise funds for the Young and Brave Foundation charity. How else are you involved with this charity and what is the cause?
KG: I am an ambassador for The Young & Brave foundation, a charity focused on pediatric cancer with the idea of love curing all. I got in contact with Matt, one of the co-founders a few months ago and we are really excited for the possibilities of the future. I recently ran a 1⁄2 marathon campaigning for the cause, visited with some patients in NYC and collaborating with LACLE for a personal band to raise funds for The Young & Brave. The Newport surf community lost one of the happiest and most positive groms in 2011. He and his family was a huge staple in the Newport Harbor surf community. I believe the way he lived every day, even with the horrible disease, has inspired me. He was always positive and his family was the kindest even with their struggles. He was one of the bigger reasons why I got involved with the organization.
The most important thing is to enjoy the journey. Of course, the accolades and accomplishments are icing on the cake, but what really matters is the grind, the connections with teammates and coaches and pushing your limits to what you once thought was impossible.
SF: People seem to be too busy to eat well, exercise and give back to their families, let alone their communities. What advice do you have for the embattled modern “nine-to-fiver” who is putting their dreams on hold now in the hopes of living them later?
KG: I would tell them to stop and go after their dreams right now. One of my best friends was crushing it in NYC in the finance World, but wasn’t happy. She knew she didn’t want to be stuck in a cubicle her entire life. She quit her job and pursued her real dream, acting. I always admire her courage to go after what she loves. I know everyone can’t quit their jobs and go after their dreams, but I advise those who can to do it and those who can’t nd better balance in work and home life. Make more time for yourself and what you love.
SF: A professional sports career, or two, is not all fun and games. Training can be brutal, and the sacrifices can be huge. How do you view the pros and cons, and what is most rewarding about the pros?
KG: When I was younger I think I took advantage of my situation and of my talents. I didn’t realize how good I had it with athletics. I wanted to do everything. I wanted to be the sorority sister, the loving friend, the pro surfer, the Olympic water polo player. For the most part, I juggled it all pretty darn well and enjoyed the crazy lifestyle (and still do). Now, I have a better perspective on things. A few years ago, I almost gave up my water polo dream to go after my surfing dream, but once I followed my heart and committed to water polo I fell in love with training even more. During the past few years I have yet to wake up wanting to quit, of course there are the mornings you are exhausted and wish you could sleep in, but none bad enough to question what I am doing. I love training. I love water polo and surfing. When you love it as much as I do, the pros out weight the cons.
SF: At 25 years old, you’ve accomplished more in a decade of serious competition than most athletes accomplish in a lifetime – or two. What is the most important lesson you’ve learned so far, and what else is on your agenda in both athletics and life?
KG: The most important thing is to enjoy the journey. Of course, the accolades and accomplishments are icing on the cake, but what really matters is the grind, the connections with teammates and coaches and pushing your limits to what you once thought was impossible. I know at some point I will have to retire the water polo cap and give up the surf jersey to let the next generation take over. Because of this, I am trying to embrace every opportunity I get to compete and not take this wild ride for granted.