Through Twists and Turns, Kaleigh Gilchrist Follows Father’s Footsteps to Tokyo Olympics

Jul 26, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; United States driver Kaleigh Gilchrist (10) handles the ball against China centre forward Xiao Chen (11) in womens group B water polo during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tatsumi Water Polo Centre. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
U.S. water polo's Kaleigh Gilchrist, right, looks for a pass as China's Xiao Chen defends; Photo Courtesy: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Through Twists and Turns, Kaleigh Gilchrist Follows Father’s Footsteps to Tokyo Olympics

There are a lot of reasons why Kaleigh Gilchrist might not have been in Tokyo, some her choosing, some barely within her power.

But as the 29-year-old pondered what her future held, beyond the gold medal won in 2016 with the U.S. water polo team, one tie kept pulling her towards Tokyo: The chance to be the second member of her family to participate in a Tokyo Olympics.

Gilchrist is following the footsteps of her father, Sandy Gilchrist, who swam for Canada in the 1964 Tokyo Games. Kaleigh Gilchrist is chasing a second gold medal with the top-ranked U.S. squad.

“The talk of Tokyo just made it so much cooler, wanting to come here and compete, same city that my dad did fifty-whatever-seven years ago,” Gilchrist said Monday after scoring in a 12-7 U.S. win over China in round-robin play at the Tatsumi Water Polo Centre.

Jul 26, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; United States driver Paige Hauschild (5) shooting the ball against China centre back Xiaohan Mei (3) in womens group B water polo during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tatsumi Water Polo Centre. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The U.S.’s Paige Hauschild winds up a shot against China’s Xiaohan Mei Monday; Photo Courtesy: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Gilchrist knew growing up about her father’s Olympic past, mainly for the purposes of bragging rights among her friends. But once she got to USC and saw reminders of her father’s Olympic past, the significance of it grew.

“When I started getting on the national team and making the Olympics my dream, then I realized, oh he did this as well,” Kaleigh Gilchrist said. “I think that’s been one of my favorite parts of my entire athletic career.”

Both were team captains at USC. Both made it to two Olympics, Sandy swimming on to Mexico City. And both have a Tokyo Games on their resume.

Sandy Gilchrist was born in Ocean Falls, British Columbia. His long swimming career included 10 medals at the Pan Am Games – five silver, five bronze; five individual, five relays. His closest brush to Olympic hardware was fourth place in Mexico City in the Canadian men’s 800 freestyle relay.

In Tokyo, he swam a daunting program. He was on all three Canadian relays without making a final. He finished fifth in the 400 individual medley, 12th in the 1,500 free and exited in the heats of the 400 free.

Kaleigh Gilchrist inherited that natural aptitude for water growing up in Newport Beach, Calif. In her case, it was split with surfing, in which Gilchrist competed internationally in her youth, even delaying her commitment to national team-level water polo for surfing. The plan in 2016, after the U.S. chased its second straight gold medal, was to transition back to surfing on the international circuit.

Gilchrist ended up back in the pool, though it proved a difficult road. She was on the U.S. team that won the World Championship in 2019, though in celebrating in Gwangju, she was injured when a nightclub balcony collapsed. The incident killed two people, and Gilchrist was among more than a dozen sent to the hospital, requiring surgery for deep lacerations on her left leg and an arduous rehab. Had the Games gone on as scheduled in 2020, Gilchrist might not have been part of the U.S. team.

But having fully recovered, Gilchrist is again a vital part of the U.S. team on both ends of the pool.

Monday, that meant leading a dogged defensive effort. Where the U.S. deluged Japan, 25-4, in the opener, setting what was briefly an Olympic scoring record, the game with China was significantly tighter. The U.S. trailed 4-2 and were tied 6-6 after an uneven first half. But they shut out China in the third quarter around a four-goal run to take control. In all, the China drought stretched 16 minutes and 49 seconds.

Jul 26, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; United States driver Margaret Steffens (6) bleeds from her nose against China in womens group B water polo during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tatsumi Water Polo Centre. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

U.S. player Maggie Steffens, right, had to exit Monday’s game with China after being bloodied up; Photo Courtesy: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

“We haven’t seen China in years and we know they’re a really, really good team,” Gilchrist said. “And they’ve only gotten better through the pandemic with this extra year. So we knew it was going to be a game like that. We weren’t surprised. But I think us and the way we push through and continue to work is what you saw in the third quarter and fourth quarter. That’s why it paid off.”

Paige Hauschild put the U.S. up for good at 7-6 late in the third, her short-side rip the first goal in more than eight minutes of the frame. Maddie Fischer scored a hat trick, including an absolute cannon from 12 yards with seven seconds left in the third to make it 9-6.

“We got amazing looks on offense and had to trust that they would eventually go in,” Gilchrist said. “We can’t get timid from that and continue to shoot, and we say them start to go in in the third and the fourth.”

The decisive run occurred with Maggie Steffens – who scored once, to get within four of the all-time Olympic scoring record – on the sidelines getting medical attention. Gilchrist added the 11th on a 2-on-1 with Aria Fischer, the latter with an unselfish feed after her steal.

Rachel Fattal scored twice in the first quarter, pairing with a backhand, no-look goal from Melissa Seidemann at two meters to make it 4-4 after one.

Ashleigh Johnson only had to make seven saves, such was the strength of the defense in front of her, but two came in quick succession with the game tied at 6. She tipped away a back-post lob with China up a player, then swiped out a hard shot from outside, allowing Hauschild to bounce the U.S. back into the lead.

Zhang Jing and Wang Huan scored twice each for China. Shen Yineng was impressive with 11 saves, frustrating the U.S. for long stretches.

For Gilchrist, the win is another step on a long road. Though Sandy, now 75, can’t be in Tokyo, the 2 p.m. local start times are at 10 p.m. the night before on the West Coast. Kaleigh has gotten pictures of family and friends gathering together to cheer the U.S. on.


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It’s only fitting, for how much the lure of family has pushed Kaleigh through the years.

“I don’t think it was until later on when I started going through a similar process that I kind of embraced his journey and learned a little bit more about it,” she said. “It’s been really, really fun sharing similar experiences together.”

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Sherry Miner Stucker
2 years ago

Congratulations to Kaleigh and the entire Gilchrist family. Sandy, you deserve to be one proud daddy!

2 years ago

One fantastic journey and a great family experience. Keep up the good work and enjoy the entire trip with lots to talk about once you return and can communicate in person with your Dad.

Bruce W. Munn
2 years ago


I am staying awake tonight just to see You and the Whole Team USA Win More Gold! All The Best! Stay Safe!

Cynthia Carli
2 years ago

Do you have a Grandfather named Alan Gilchrist? He was a swimmer from USC who, as I remember, was also from Canada.