LOS ALAMITOS, Calif. (AP) — Kaleigh Gilchrist is being pulled in two directions, almost all the time.
On one side are the beaches of the world, and waves that keep rolling to the shore every day she is away. On the other side is a chance for Olympic gold and a team of sisters bonded in their quest for another water polo title.
The pool wins for now, but surfing is calling.
"Everything happens for a reason and I am exactly where I want to be right now," Gilchrist said. "But August 20th I am going to be a surfer, hopefully."
That's the day after the women's Olympic final in Rio de Janeiro, and she can recite that date from memory for a reason. The United States, the defending Olympic and world champion, is favored to repeat this summer, and Gilchrist's decision to delay a potentially lucrative surfing career is a major reason why.
While Gilchrist's father, Sandy, swam for the University of Southern California and competed for Canada in the Olympics, coach Adam Krikorian said Kaleigh is the worst swimmer on the speedy team. But she has come a long way — one of the most improved he has ever seen — and her vision and calm demeanor make her indispensable for the U.S. team.
"I would equate her to a Magic Johnson-type, someone who can see the whole pool, who doesn't have that tunnel vision, who can always find the open player," Krikorian said, "and the one thing that I truly love about her and why she's really important for us is that she's got a great demeanor and a great composure to herself when she plays."
The 24-year-old Gilchrist, who helped lead USC to the national title in 2013, scored five times as the U.S. clinched a spot in Rio on its way to a perfect 8-0 record at an Olympic qualification tournament in the Netherlands in March. She had six goals in the United States' run to the gold medal at the FINA Intercontinental Tournament in Texas in February.
"She has this humble competitiveness and at the same time this positive outlook, so people are just drawn to her," said captain Maggie Steffens, who lives with Gilchrist in Gilchrist's hometown of Newport Beach.
Gilchrist grew up in the water, either in the pool for water polo or the beach for surfing. While she excelled in each sport, she began to warm to surfing as a possible profession after she was selected for the USA Surf Team and then won the under-18 Surfing America USA Championship in 2009 and 2010.
Her success in surfing helped create a bumpy transition to playing college water polo as a freshman.
"I'm sitting in my dorm room first semester, kind of struggling, and I'm watching these girls I grew up with on the U.S. surf team competing," Gilchrist said. "I just beat them two months prior, and they're winning tour events, traveling, living this lavish professional surfing lifestyle. It's like, 'What am I doing here?'"
Gilchrist wrote an email to USC coach Jovan Vavic saying she wanted to quit but never sent it to him. Her parents persuaded her to stick it out for at least one year, and she regained her love for the sport by the end of the season.
The surfing versus water polo conundrum popped up again three years ago, when Krikorian invited her to try out for the national team for the first time. She had a great camp and Krikorian was all set to put her on the roster when she backed out because of surfing contests in Peru and France.
Krikorian could have banished Gilchrist for good, but he welcomed her back to the national program in the fall of 2013. Since that summer, it has been a steady ride for Gilchrist with the U.S. team.
"I didn't want to give up on her. ... For me, it was an easy decision," Krikorian said.
— Kaleigh Gilchrist (@KGilchrist15) May 24, 2016
Gilchrist still surfs about three to four times a week, a total that likely would draw a careful rebuke from Krikorian out of injury concerns. But Gilchrist said surfing helps her deal with the pressure of water polo.
"The wave is never the same," Gilchrist said, "and then of course, it's really (subjectivity) through the judges, and some people may say referees are subjective in water polo, but realistically, the rules are similar, the pool's always the same length, you know you're always trying to score goals. ... I think that those outside factors really set me up for a good mental aspect in water polo."
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap