One moment, Kaleigh Gilchrist was celebrating an unprecedented third straight world championship for the U.S. women’s water polo team.
In the next moment, she was headed to a hospital in South Korea.
Gilchrist was partying with teammate Paige Hauschild and other competitors from the world swimming championships when a balcony at a nightclub near the athletes’ village collapsed early Saturday morning, killing two people and creating a chaotic scene in the southern city of Gwangju.
“We were having the best night ever celebrating our win, and somehow, a freak accident happened,” Gilchrist told The Associated Press in a phone interview.
Gilchrist, a 27-year-old attacker from Newport Beach, California, who also was part of the United States’ gold medal-winning team at the 2016 Olympics, sustained some deep lacerations on her left leg and got some stitches for cuts on her left thigh. But she said she had no broken bones or nerve damage.
Gilchrist had surgery later Saturday morning. She remained in the hospital Monday while doctors monitored her recovery, but she hoped to return to the U.S. on Tuesday.
She was counting her blessings, too.
“We are the lucky ones and our thoughts and prayers go out to the families who have lost loved ones,” she said.
Gilchrist, who also has traveled the world as an accomplished surfer, remembers only parts of the harrowing night.
Hours after the Americans’ 11-6 victory over Spain in the final, Gilchrist was on the balcony with Hauschild, U.S. men’s attacker Johnny Hooper and other athletes when it went down.
“It was all pretty quick, I think,” Gilchrist said. “But I remember falling and I talked to Johnny and we kind of thought the same thing: It’s like, we felt like (we were) falling for 10 seconds, which it probably ended up being one or two seconds. But everything kind of slowed down.”
Hooper said the balcony started rumbling before it collapsed.
“I remember like grabbing them kind of and being like ‘It’s going to be all right,’” he said, “and the next thing you know, we fall 10, 15 feet, where (we’re) just suspended in midair, and the whole things just goes down and gives out and breaks.”
Gilchrist said the railing of the balcony was lined with glued-down beer bottles that shattered when it collapsed. She thinks she was helped up before she made her way out of the nightclub with Hauschild.
When Gilchrist got outside, she realized the extent of her injuries and laid down on the sidewalk. She then got some help from some players on the U.S. men and Australian water polo teams, and Christopher Bates, a trainer for the U.S. men’s team, joined the group.
“Chris was kind of just the biggest blessing,” Gilchrist said. “He came, he’s a trainer, he put his belt around my leg as a tourniquet and he came in the ambulance with me.”
Gilchrist face-timed with her parents, Jenny and Sandy, and sister, Ali, right after she got hurt, and Bates and her U.S. teammates also provided updates. Larnie Boquiren, a trainer for the women’s team, and team doctor Seth Schmoll also helped take care of Gilchrist.
“My mom wanted to fly out, but I said ‘Don’t worry. I’m here with our trainer, Larnie, and Dr. Seth,’” Gilchrist said. “They’ve been so great to me, so I told my mom don’t worry and I’ll be home in no time.
“She still wanted to come, but it’s all good.”
Hooper got 12 stitches on his left hand. He visited a doctor on Monday who said it was basically a clean cut and missed all the muscles in the area.
He plans to play when the United States takes on Cuba in its Pan American Games opener Sunday in Peru. The U.S. men can qualify for the 2020 Olympics by winning the tournament.
“It probably won’t be healed, but we’ll bandage it up pretty nicely,” Hooper said. “I mean worse comes to worst, the stitches pop and we sew it up after the game again.”
Hauschild and U.S. center Ben Hallock also got hurt. Hauschild got stitches on her right arm, and Hallock had some minor scrapes on his legs.
Gilchrist said she should know more about her recovery after she returns to the U.S., but she is hoping to be back in the pool with the team in a few months. The U.S. became the first team to win three straight world water polo titles with the victory in South Korea, and it is a big favorite to win a third consecutive gold at the Olympics next year.
“It’s awesome to be a part of history and I think there’s something special about our team,” Gilchrist told the AP. “It’s just a bummer that an incident like this has to bring headlines to our team and not just the way we play the game and the way we work and grind. I think there’s something to be said of the success and I think a lot of people could learn from us.”
Jay Cohen can be reached at https://twitter.com/jcohenap
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