Surfest: Kaleigh Gilchrist, Nolan Rapoza win wildcards into World Surf League Qualifying Series | video, photos

Rio Olympics gold medallist Kaleigh Gilchrist won through the Surfest women’s trials at Merewether on Sunday as she chases a spot on the 2018 World Surf League Championship Tour.

The powerfully built 24-year-old from California won Olympic gold with the US water polo team last year but has taken time off to pursue her surfing career.

Gilchrist edged out South African Nicole Pallet with a last-gasp wave in Sunday’s trials final in one-metre waves as thunder and lightning closed in. Currumbin’s Eden Putland and Angourie’s Tahlija Redgard were also in the decider.

“It feels good. I had an opportunity on that right with, like, three minutes left – I had priority – and I fell, and I was like, ‘Oh, man, I just blew it.’ But luckily that little right came in and I was able to grind it out for a five, so I’m stoked,” she said.

Gilchrist will line up in the main draw of the 6000-point Qualifying Series event on Monday. She made the fourth round two years ago when she was still training for water polo.  

“A couple of years ago I got a decent result, but I’ve taken some time off of surfing for water polo and Olympics and all that, so I definitely don’t have a seed.

“It’s good to get in the main draw. I’m here to mix with the big girls.”

Meanwhile, fellow Californian Nolan Rapoza, the 2016 North America Pro Junior series champion, showed his potential with victory in the men’s trials.

The 19-year-old from Long Beach will enter the main draw of the Surfest Men’s Pro on Monday after winning the wildcard final.

Rapoza is 28th on the 2017 World Surf League Qualifying Series rankings after graduating from juniors at the start of the year.

The goofy-footer lost in the first round at last year’s Surfest trials but now has a chance to climb the rankings in the first 6000-point QS event of the season.

“I feel really good. It was kind of stormy, windy, like wind chop, but, you know, it’s still fun,” Rapoza said.

“There’s definitely some good waves out there. Last year it was a lot harder than this. I’m glad to do well in it.”