Kaleigh Gilchrist USA Water Polo ()Kaleigh Gilchrist USA Water Polo () © Copyright

How to be a water polo driver

USA's Kaleigh Gilchrist, driver for the reigning Olympic water polo champions, tells us how she gets the job done...


I play mostly on the right side of the pool. A lot of people play in all positions, but I focus on the right side because while I’m not as quick or explosive as some, I have good vision and can see what’s going on and pass the ball into the centre. Reading the game is very important for me, as is trying to be one step ahead of my opponent in any situation.

Countering the oppo

How we’re set up depends on what the opponent is doing, and what plays we need to adapt to during the game. We try to prepare well because most teams have certain tendencies we look for. If they throw something new at us, too, we need to be able to change and adapt during the game.

We usually have a scouting report and watch videos to get familiarised with them. We look at how they play as a whole, but we’ll also look at the better players on the team – we’ll watch their individual skills or tendencies, like where they tend to shoot the ball or certain moves they often do, so we can be prepared to stop that.

Kaleigh Gilchrist USA Water Polo throw ()


A life in water

I grew up in Newport Beach in California, which is a pretty big place for water polo. My dad and uncle are Olympian swimmers, so I started swimming at a young age and have been around a pool my entire life. One of my friends suggested water polo because he was enjoying it, so I went to a practice when I was about eight years old and have been playing ever since.

Speed vs endurance

I’m not the best swimmer, but it definitely helps if you are fast. Endurance is a huge part of the game, because it’s so physical. At the beginning of our weeks, we do endurance swimming training and towards the end of the week, we’ll focus on sprints.

Gym time

We lift three times a week for an hour and a half to two hours, so a good portion of our weekly training takes place in the gym. We run a lot and lift weights with our legs, as well as conditioning our legs with weight belts or movement drills.

One-handed catch

For us, the one-handed catch is so natural because we’ve been doing it for so long, but it definitely looks impressive to people who haven’t seen the sport or don’t know much about it. Their minds are blown that we catch and pass with one hand.

Kaleigh Gilchrist Water Polo ()



Our whole team is right-handed – none of us are ambidextrous, but we’ve played against a few opponents that are, and it definitely makes it harder to defend or guard.

We’re all right-handed by coincidence, but we’d love to have a left-hander in the team because they could get a better angle towards the goal. My side is where a left-hander would naturally play, but I love playing on that side of the pool.

Surf’s up

The leg strength you get from surfing – all that squatting and balancing on the board – has definitely helped me. The mental aspect of surfing in so many heats has helped a lot in my water polo career. When you’re out there, you have so many factors that you can’t control like waves, tides, wind, swell; things that can change any time. And you have judges that judge your performance. With all those factors and variables that we can’t control, I learned to just focus on what I can control.

Keep talking

We’ve talked with our sports psychologist about how good communication can keep you focused and in the moment. If you’re talking about what’s going on now, you can’t be thinking about some mistake you made before. In water polo, mistakes are bound to happen in every single possession.

Good communication comes from the relationship that you have with your teammates, and the connections that you build and the trust. It goes way further than just inside the pool – you have to have good relationships with teammates, so that in the moment you’re not worried or afraid to yell at someone.

Kaleigh Gilchrist Water Polo throw ()


Chess in the pool

Water polo is kind of like chess. There are always pieces moving around and you’ll never be in the same situation twice, so I really enjoy reading those situations and trying to be one step ahead of everyone else.


I know I’ve had a good game if I’ve defended well. I didn’t give up any goals, I didn’t have any stupid ejections, and maybe I got a shot block or a couple of steals. Then my defensive game pushes my offensive game. In attack, I love to assist, make those good passes or good reads that lead to something, make a couple of entries to the centre and if I get a goal or two or three, that’s always helpful.

Doing it all

A good driver focuses on one aspect of the game and really excels at that part of it, but a great driver is someone that can do it all. They can play both sides of the pool, they’re quick and agile, they can score, and they can defend really well.


You sometimes get elbowed in a game, so needing stitches is a normal injury. Elbows happen more in the centre and defending position in the middle of the pool where someone is trying to spin to gain position and they spin right into someone’s eyebrow or head. It comes with the territory, but there are certainly players who do it on purpose when things get heated. You can get a yellow or red card or a brutality when you intentionally hurt someone or do something wrong like talk back to the ref, and you might get banned for the next game.

Jamming your fingers hurts too, when you’re trying to catch a ball and you catch it wrong, or you’re trying to guard somebody and you hit them awkwardly. Jammed fingers don’t sound too bad, but it’s an injury that takes a while to heal. You don’t realise how important they are until you injure a finger, then you can feel it every time you catch a ball.

Below the water

I don’t think people realise how physical water polo is. They’re just seeing it from the top view and there’s so much more going on below the water in terms of fitness. I don’t think people realise how hard it is to tread or lunge, or all these things we do. Then you see an underwater video and you see how fast our legs are moving, or how much someone’s grabbing you. 



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