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Long and painful delay ends up benefiting U.S. water polo Olympian Kaleigh Gilchrist

U.S. Women's water polo team member Kaleigh Gilchrist practices in the pool.
U.S. women’s water polo team member Kaleigh Gilchrist will return to the Olympics in Tokyo.
(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

If the Tokyo Olympics had gone forward as scheduled last year, Kaleigh Gilchrist might have been watching the women’s water polo tournament on TV instead of playing in it.

In the summer of 2019, she sustained severe injuries when a balcony she was standing on collapsed. And though she had physically recovered in time to be considered for the U.S. roster in 2020, she wasn’t ready mentally.

“That mental aspect was a lot harder than any of the physical aspects for rehabbing and getting back,” Gilchrist said Wednesday, moments after she was named to the 13-woman team for Tokyo, where the U.S. will be going for an unprecedented third straight gold medal.

Gilchrist, 29, is one of eight players returning from the 2016 championship team. And she admits the yearlong postponement of the Tokyo Games because of COVID-19 helped her deal not only with the trauma of the balcony collapse, which killed two people, but also the loss of two important mentors in Bill Barnett, her high school water polo coach, and Lakers great Kobe Bryant, a Newport Beach neighbor who inspired her during her rehab.

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Despite deaths, accidents and a mass shooting, the U.S. Olympic women’s water polo team has climbed back from adversity again and again.

“There’s a lot from the incident and from those losses just to process and I wasn’t able to invest myself into that,” she said. “I had horse blinders on, like, ‘I’ve got to get better physically.’ Then there’s little things that popped up with some panics and claustrophobia.

“I realized that I needed help.”

So in addition to daily water polo practices, Gilchrest worked on three separate types of therapy three times a week.

“It’s exhausting. That was a lot harder than any of the physical aspect of rehabbing,” she said. “But I grew a lot from it. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished.”

So is her coach Adam Krikorian, who guided the U.S. to a seventh straight FINA World League Super Final championship Monday in Greece.

“There’s no question that extra year helped her,” he said. “It was a tough journey and process for her. It’s hard to read the tea leaves and what would have been, but clearly she’s in a much better position now than she was back then.”

Simone Manuel won the 50-meter freestyle at the U.S. Olympic trials Sunday, overcoming setbacks brought on earlier in the year by health issues.

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The U.S. women are ranked No. 1 in the world and have won every major international title available since 2014, making the veteran roster Krikorian chose Wednesday one of the deepest and most decorated in the program’s history. It features a pair of three-time Olympians in captain Maggie Steffens, 28, and defender Melissa Seidemann, 30, but Seidemann said the players, who have had to wait an extra 12 months for a shot at another title, aren’t building on past success so much as they are blazing their own path.

“This is a new team,” she said. “The players and my role on this team is different. Everything about it is a unique experience. To not cherish that would really be a disservice to the program.”

The roster:

Goalkeepers: Ashleigh Johnson (Miami), Amanda Longan (Moorpark)

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Attackers: Rachel Fattal (Seal Beach), Kaleigh Gilchrist (Newport Beach), Stephania Haralabidis (Athens, Greece), Paige Hauschild (Santa Barbara),
Maddie Musselman (Newport Beach), Jamie Neushul (Isla Vista), Maggie Steffens (Danville)

Center: Aria Fischer (Laguna Beach)

Defenders: Makenzie Fischer (Laguna Beach), Melissa Seidemann (Walnut Creek), Alys Williams (Huntington Beach)


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