‘Mamba Mission’: Water Polo Gold Medalist Kaleigh Gilchrist on Kobe Bryant Connection

Jul 30, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; USA player Kaleigh Gilchrist (10) shoots against ROC during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tatsumi Water Polo Centre. Mandatory Credit: Michael Madrid-USA TODAY Sports
Kaleigh Gilchrist; Photo Courtesy: Michael Madrid/USA Today sports

‘Mamba Mission’: Water Polo Gold Medalist Kaleigh Gilchrist on Kobe Bryant Connection

There’s plenty to say about the journey that U.S. women’s water polo player Kaleigh Gilchrist has been on in her career.

She’s won a pair of gold medals, including at the Tokyo Olympics weeks ago, around a career as a professional surfer. She suffered severe injuries in a deck collapse in 2019 that killed two people. She recovered from that challenge to make the Tokyo Olympics, where he father had competed 57 years earlier, around a one-year postponement due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But one aspect of Gilchrist’s journey less remarked upon is her connection to another famous athlete who helped her return to the pool: Kobe Bryant. She re-shared the story on social media this week, with a new end point, to mark what would’ve been the late basketball star’s 43rd birthday on Monday.


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As reported by the Los Angeles Times, Gilchrist met Bryant several years ago. She reached out to him for help in her rehab after the 2019 leg injury, which came on the heels of the U.S. winning a world championship in Gwangju. Bryant had returned at age 34 from a torn Achilles tendon and later in his career embraced a mentor role to numerous athletes, including young basketball players and, in following the career of his eldest daughter Gianna Bryant, female athletes.

While Gilchrist was rehabbing her injuries, then aiming for what she assumed would be the summer of 2020, she and her trainer Larnie Boquiren dubbed the recovery, “the Mamba Mission,” after Bryant’s “Black Mamba” nickname/alter ego.

From Gilchrist’s post:

This work and “the grind” wasn’t all about the physical. The biggest stage on the Mamba Mission was about the mental. I learned that nothing is worth the expense of your mental health. It’s important to ask for help, be vulnerable and give yourself space. This allowed me to develop deeper connections and enjoy the process which brought so much joy. I realized this was far more important and far bigger than winning water polo games.

Gilchrist was barely four months into her Mamba Mission when Bryant died in a helicopter crash in Jan. 2020, a crash that killed Gianna and seven others. She posted tributes to Bryant and his influence in the wake of that tragedy and again this year to mark the first anniversary of his passing.

And on Bryant’s birthday, with Gilchrist’s second gold medal secured and this installment of the Mamba Mission a success, she again recognized the mentor that helped her make it happen.

Again, from the post:

So what started off as a fun name for my recovery given by Larnie, took on a life of it’s own with a much deeper meaning. The Mamba Mission is complete and the job is finished. But the truth is, I’ll forever be on the Mamba Mission. I’ll forever be on a quest for constant self improvement and do so with the tools and lessons learned from this chapter.