Kaleigh Gilchrist, a Newport Harbor High graduate, competes in heat two of the Junior Women's Surf semifinals at the U.S. Open of Surfing Saturday. Gilchrist placed fourth in the finals. (KEVIN CHANG, Daily Pilot / August 4, 2012)

HUNTINGTON BEACH — For Kaleigh Gilchrist, a summer vacation from USC can be seen as an excuse to travel around the world.

Just look at her July. Gilchrist, a 2010 Newport Harbor High graduate, said she went to Croatia, Montenegro and Italy on a training trip with the Trojans women's water polo team. Last week, she surfed at a six-star Assn. of Surfing Professionals event in Peru.

But for Gilchrist, like most college students, it is good to be home. She showed that she continues to be a two-sport stud, putting on a show for plenty of her Orange County friends and family Saturday at theU.S. Openof Surfing.

Gilchrist made the finals of the Junior Women's Pro event, finishing fourth on the south side of the Huntington Beach Pier. The effort netted her 492 ratings points, as well as $650.

Nikki Van Dijk of Australia won the finals with 14.90 points, followed by Leila Hurst of Hawaii (12.33) and Quincy Davis of New York (11.83).

Gilchrist, who finished with 11.30 points, could still be happy with her day. She made her first Junior Pro final at the U.S. Open in the last year she was eligible for the division.

"When you're in the finals you're just going for the win," said Gilchrist, 20. "Only a couple of points separated second, third and fourth. It's all about first place, and Nikki started running away with it. I would have loved to get a couple more waves, but just stoked to be up there on the podium."

Van Dijk, who is 14th in the women's world rankings, was certainly happy to win. The 17-year-old said it was "awesome" to win at the U.S. Open, smiling as she held the trophy above her head. She posed for pictures with Hurley founder Bob Hurley and surfing legend Rob Machado, who has won the U.S. Open men's division three times.

Gilchrist stayed steady throughout the day. She mostly alternated between second and third place in the 30-minute final. She only finished fourth after Hurst caught a big wave near the end.

Gilchrist, wearing the black singlet in the final, grabbed momentum near the middle of the heat. She recorded her two scoring waves — a 5.27 and a 6.03 — on back-to-back rides. It excited a large contingent of her friends and family, both from Newport and from USC.

"It was awesome," Gilchrist said. "Definitely the best final to make, at the U.S. Open, with all these people and everything. Stoked to do that."

Earlier Saturday afternoon, Gilchrist finished second in her semifinal heat behind Van Dijk to move on to the finals. She shook off a slow start to score a 13.47. Her first scoring wave of the semifinal heat ended up being her best of the day, a 7.67 where she made a quick turn on a short wave.

"I was able to get it to the inside, and kind of finish it with a little floater and get a decent score," Gilchrist said.

Gilchrist, the 2010 National Scholastic Surfing Assn. national champion and Governor's Cup winner, said she still surfs a lot in L.A. as well as in Newport. She enters as many events as she can during the summer, which is the water polo off-season. Now she will prepare for the six-star Supergirl Pro, down in Oceanside next weekend.

But she also is still accomplishing big things in water polo. Last spring, the center led the Trojans with 47 goals and was a second-team All-American. Gilchrist helped USC make the NCAA championship match before falling to Stanford.

Asked if she was surprised that she led USC in scoring as a sophomore, Gilchrist answered no, not necessarily.

"I mean, I put a lot of pressure on myself because I know my abilities," she said. "Maybe for some other people, because you're a sophomore in college, people weren't really expecting that. But I was stoked. [Freshman] Monica Vavic and me, we kind of ended up being the leaders of the team in scoring. That was cool, and it gives us a bright future for the next couple of seasons."

Gilchrist's future does continue to be bright.

She earns those summer trips.

matthew.szabo@latimes.com

Twitter: @mjszabo