Open Water Swimming and Symphonies: An Exclusive Interview with Kathleen Wilson

Open Water Swimming and Symphonies: An Exclusive Interview with Kathleen Wilson

Kathleen Wilson’s swimming accomplishments are extensive — Triple Crown and the Grand Slam of Open Water Swimming. Kathleen has swum the length of Lake Zurich, crossed the Santa Barbara Channel, the Strait of Gibraltar, and completed a unique 16+ mile circumnavigation of the Charleston peninsula. She’s also tackled Lake Memphremagog, the Molokai Channel, a 25-mile stretch from Charleston’s Hwy. 41 bridge to I-526 Westmoreland Bridge, and participated in the SCAR Arizona event, covering four lakes in four days. In 2017, despite undergoing significant shoulder surgeries, she continued her passion for swimming. In 2019, she completed a 19.5-mile swim in Bogue Sound, NC, in May 2022, a double crossing of the Sea of Galilee to mark her 25th anniversary in marathon swimming and this year swam the 20 km Öresund Straight from Denmark to Sweden.

On top of all that, she founded the 12-mile Swim Around Charleston (SAC) marathon swim in Charleston, South Carolina and developed the SwimCalm program.

She has been awarded the Order of the Palmetto, South Carolina’s highest civilian honor as well as a member of the Class of 2018 inducted into the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame for her body of work as a marathon swimmer and introducing the sport of marathon swimming to South Carolina. She is also a principal harpist in various symphony orchestras and serves as an adjunct instructor of harp at both the College of Charleston and Charleston Southern University. After serving three terms as a councilmember for the city of Charleston, she now holds the position of Commissioner of Public Works, with her commitment to ensuring access to affordable, safe, and clean water.

Let’s join Kathleen Wilson and explore her rich symphony of experiences and accomplishments. From open waters to the melodic resonance of a harp, here’s Kathleen, in her own words.

As the Race Director for Swim Around Charleston, you are instrumental in orchestrating the event. Can you share with us what goes behind the scenes in preparing for such an event, and how your extensive experience as a marathon swimmer informs your decisions and planning for the race?

Kathleen Wilson: The Swim Around Charleston (SAC) would never have been developed if not for my extensive experience as a marathon swimmer.  I treated initial organizational elements as if I was the incoming swimmer – I took myself through the entire swim, both land and water, to identify every single element that I might need and every question that I might ask. That significant swimming experience paid off substantially with the U.S. Coast Guard.  They were skeptical at our initial meeting and fired questions at me without mercy.  I answered each one completely and could supplement my answers with real life experiences from my swims.

After 12 years as race director, many of the facets regarding the swim are on automatic pilot.  The most important items are race support, both in the water and on land as well as strong relationships with the U.S. Coast Guard and the various vendors that I call upon each year. The Coast Guard has a large file on the swim, and they feel very comfortable with me. Yes, we have had a bump here and there, but we communicate and each do what we can to reduce or eliminate that bump. Keep in mind that the USCG faces are always changing due to exiting or incoming personnel with duty station reassignments.  If I have the same faces for two years, that is a plus.

My vendors know me the moment I contact them.  It took several years to build all of this, but it has eased the preparation that I now face each year. The ever-shifting swimmer entries and swimmer needs are the most difficult aspect these days.

In your role as Commissioner of Public Works, you have a focus on maintaining water quality and safety. How does your passion for swimming and experience with open water influence your perspective and actions in this role, especially in ensuring water is inexpensive, safe, and clean?

Kathleen Wilson: Commissioner of Public Works at Charleston Water System is an elected position and follows my three terms spent on Charleston City Council.  I enjoy public service and I especially enjoy the learning curve and the decision-making process. It is very different work from swimming or professional music. We have a tremendous staff at CWS who handles the huge day to day responsibilities, so my role is mainly fiduciary and policy making.  We all have a unified, clear mission and vision – to protect the environment and provide clean, safe water at a reasonable price. We keep our water quality better than required, while maintaining and updating an enormous infrastructure, the vast majority of it underground. We are going beyond to assist in an initiative to move some island residents from septic tanks to sewer service, a move that will lead to a cleaner environment and the waters in which I swim and place my SAC swimmers each year. Clean water is often taken for granted, we think nothing of turning on a faucet or taking a hot shower but billions of people lack basic access to such a facet of everyday life.

Through your SwimCalm program, you empower adults to overcome their fears and learn to swim. How does it feel to see individuals conquer their fears and embrace the water, and how do you approach teaching those who have had longstanding fears of swimming?

Kathleen Wilson: SwimCalm came about in 2011. I had a major life shift when the Charleston Symphony faced budget issues and at the urging of the Board of Directors, our colleagues voted 12 of us out of our jobs. I was one “thrown out of the lifeboat” but they forgot how well I swim. In an instant pivot, I took some training in dealing with extremely fearful swimmers and found that I had the patience and ability to reach these “unteachable” adults. I crafted my own version of the training, not the usual “move your arms and legs and kick, you will be fine.” It is teaching in a different manner and in detail, a high level of respect towards the fear they face. I watch for frustration or becoming overwhelmed. To watch adults achieve things they never dreamed possible, often crying at the gains made is fantastic. I have a very high success rate and love getting texts from vacations or backyard pools with the new swimmer having a blast and happy.

In your swim across the Kaiwi Channel, you described experiencing immense physical discomfort but pushed through to finish the swim. Can you explore the mental strategies you used to overcome the pain and the challenges?

Kathleen Wilson: My mindset has matured tremendously in 26 years. 2012 Kaiwi was an extremely difficult swim for me, being tossed around continuously for almost 21 hours. I was badly beaten up by the sea and have often said that I looked like I had been in a bar fight with jellyfish sting welts all over, hundreds of sea lice stings, a bloody nose from nasal chafing and that Sandy Beach landing. That swim was transformational for me. When I had to make a decision about continuing with at least six more hours ahead of me, a jellyfish hugged me in a show of support. Ouch. I nearly levitated out of the water and yelled “I’m finishing this swim!”

From that moment on, my mind settled itself and has remained almost perfectly unruffled ever since.

I owe this to a longtime friend, a former military special operator and multiple heavyweight world champion in kickboxing. Prior to the Kaiwi Channel, he taught me how to cope with tremendous adversity. Your head will mess you up far before your body in many cases.

“Accept the work”

Whether we like it or not, we must cover every single meter of every single swim. Accept that as part of the deal.  It takes as long as it takes. Yes, it is uncomfortable and the hardships stink. Suffering during a swim is much easier now because my head is straight.

Being a professional symphony musician and a marathon swimmer seems like worlds apart. How do these two passions intersect in your life, and does one influence or enhance the other?

Kathleen Wilson: They are worlds apart. I live a life of extremes and an orchestra is a study in formality.  It is a white tie/black gown world playing centuries old repertoire in a formal manner under white hot stage lights and champagne receptions. I have a small fortune in formal black clothing and gowns. Marathon swimming is the exact opposite.  We live in dark, cold water, basically alone with a lycra Speedo and white grease.  The feeds are definitely not champagne.  I move with total ease between these two worlds. Music has cultivated a very refined sense of stroke count and pace.  I lock in and snap right back to the same pace after each feed and many times, over an entire swim. Swimming has been a sanity saver – it’s my 50-meter psychiatrist.

You’ve spoken about the new levels of resolve, resiliency, and hardness developed over years of enduring swims. How have these traits translated into your daily life?

Kathleen Wilson: The lives have played off of each other. I won’t deny that adversity wore me down badly sometimes. Swimming adversity was a tough training load plus designing the plan to pay for the next swim. City Council adversity was terrible at times, with the constant balancing of property owner’s rights, developer’s rights, best outcome for the surrounding neighborhood or City, and the law. It is glorious when they align and accusations and high drama when they do not. Musically, sometimes I would face numerous big, difficult programs with students and freelancing events stacked up each weekend. I learned to develop musical triage and to take a few shortened mornings in the pool or extra day off. Family was easiest, except when one child backs a car into another car. It helps to have a spouse who can cook and kids who were exceptionally good. Look at the bright side- nothing truly awful, like a bad diagnosis. I went hour by hour some weeks and truthfully, I am glad that for the most part those days are behind me. My one regret exists to this day. December was always a nightmare, and I am a grinch. Some years, I was ready to cry and completely spent by Christmas week, exhausted and seldom enjoying a moment of the holidays. I am still a musician; I have not had a Christmas Eve off in 44 years. It is one of my toughest days of the year.

In 2017, I had surgery for both rotator cuffs, done in by a lifetime of swimming and nearly 6000 playing events. Many tried to retire me but I called upon resilience and hardness, did the PT, took over two years to come back but have rebounded since then.

As one of the pioneering women in long-distance swimming, how do you see the representation and role of women evolving in the sport?

Kathleen Wilson: Women are fantastic in this sport! Historically, women had a slow start in sports but have come on in a major way and it is very gratifying. Many of our best swim stories come from women and in addition to our sport, I enjoy watching other sports and women who are highly successful. It is good to see. Swimming has helped me forge friendships with successful women in varied professions. We play off each other and have earned a high level of respect in the community.

Can you share any stories of individuals who have reached out to you, sharing how your journey influenced or changed their lives?

Kathleen Wilson: We have no marathon swim community locally and a swim here or there by someone. I have trained alone for most of my years in the sport. Swimmers who come in for SAC talk with me, ask for mentoring or advice and I have watched many go on to big swims, thanking me for the starting point in Charleston. Musically, I have had several students who had “Life lessons with Kathleen.” Yes, we study the instrument, but I interject real world circumstances, usually in my storytelling way as to what really happens on stage or at this venue, that wedding, etc. They love it and I still hear from them years later. I was and am the only female on City Council and now CWS so younger women ask how I cope. I am surrounded by wonderful men. I do the job and go in prepared for every meeting.

Kathleen Wilson makes her way toward France just before dawn as she swims the English Channel on August 25, 2001.

You’ve balanced a rich family life, a professional career in music, public service, and your swimming pursuits. How do you maintain harmony between these diverse aspects of your life, and what advice would you give to others striving for a similar balance?

Kathleen Wilson: I look back and wonder how I lived.  My swims began when my younger child was in diapers.  I did everything backwards. Many swimmers are single and/or childless when they are accomplishing the big swims. I had a full load of responsibilities and no sponsorships waiting. That is why I could only manage one big swim each year. My two children are now grown and gone. They grew up with me doing big swims. I often say that I did not balance my lives, I blended them. My daughter went to school across the street from the symphony hall. When at the hall, she walked over, checked in with the stagehands and sat in the hall where I could see her.  Fortunately, my husband had a normal job with normal hours to offset my insane schedule and I had the mother-in-law from heaven.

Do not be afraid to ask for help. Morning swims: Find another family who might take your child(ren) to school. Find a way to reciprocate or offer to pay them.  A lot of families could use a few extra dollars these days. I took my daughter to swim practice, she talked with people, did homework and my coach or a family friend dropped her off at school so I could stay at the pool. I also modified training to get it done Monday-Friday so I could be a parent on the weekends, sort of. Saturday was often crazy with weddings and performances so no swimming for me but I was there for many Saturday morning kids’ games.

It is a life season and will end one day. Things improved when my oldest had a driver’s license and I will always be glad that I worked so hard to get everything done. They certainly guilted me from time to time but have a great understanding of what it takes to complete these swims or related sports.

You’ve played harp with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra and have had a prolific career in open water swimming. If your swimming experiences could be translated into music, what genre or piece would it most resemble and why?

Kathleen Wilson: Marathon swimming is a Mahler symphony. We all know what goes into preparation and execution of a long swim. Playing Mahler is exactly the same thing. Gustav Mahler was an Austrian composer who believed that “The symphony must be like the world; it must embrace everything.”

His symphonies take amazing preparation, concentration, stamina and exacting execution. They take the listener through every emotion in the spectrum and the audience is almost as tired as the orchestra at its conclusion. It is very similar to the swimmer and the crew. We swimmers experience so much physical and mental joy and duress during a swim. That is why I embrace Mahler and love his work so much. Long and gut-wrenching sums up both. I am glad to be away from the Chas. Symphony but several others picked me right up so plenty of playing.

You’ve faced jellyfish stings, shark sightings, and the varied fauna of the open seas. Can you discuss an unexpected or profound encounter with marine life during one of your swims and how it impacted you?

Kathleen Wilson: During my swim from Santa Cruz Island into Oxnard, CA, I was in my zone, it was maybe an hour after dawn and visibility was poor due to fog. I could see better underwater than on the surface. Suddenly, on the boat, I saw heads snap to the right. A sea lion had surfaced and barked, getting everyone’s attention. That split second was a long one for me, until someone told me what was going on. Not long after, as I swam, I saw a pair of eyes initially, then a seal appeared underneath me and just out of arm’s reach. It turned on its back and paralleled me. It was a beautiful little animal. I could see its mottled face and each whisker, along with those big black eyes. We swam together, both very curious. After a bit, I began to get edgy and mentally asked the seal to move along. After all, I was the weak swimmer in this duo. It obliged and with a quick flip of the tail, was 30 ft away. For about 15 seconds. The seal returned, assumed that face up position and we chatted. I mentally explained that I was a sitting duck if there were other creatures nearby and obviously, the neighborhood ocean watch had been effective when the sea lion announced my presence. As much as I enjoyed this little aqua-mammal, it was time to part.

Reflecting on your 25-year journey in open-water swimming, if you could relive one swim, which one would it be and why?

Kathleen Wilson: I would like the Cook Strait back.  That swim is my only DNF.  I swam in March and over the winter, had dropped a few pounds, my good clothes were tight and I couldn’t stand it.  I developed a bad cold and lost all sense of taste for nearly two weeks.  That caused a few more pounds to vanish with the weight loss enough to cost me the swim after 9.5 hours or so. Philip Rush absolutely made the right call to pull me but that one sticks in my mind.  I am very small for a marathon swimmer, both height and girth, so I walk the line with colder swims.  I also come from a very warm climate so an added challenge.

How was it swimming from Denmark to Sweden with Swim Oresund? You were the fastest female of the 2023 season!

    Kathleen Wilson: We were headed to Dublin for the Navy/Notre Dame football game and would spend time in Ireland afterwards.  I wanted to swim somewhere and true to form, hijacked another vacation since Copenhagen was just a few hours away by air.  It was a perfect swim at about 20k and something well within my range, not a massive undertaking. It was a beautiful swim with clean, colder water. Weather must cooperate and we had a little delay but it bought me water acclimation time.  I saw thousands of ball jellyfish and played with them as I swam, touching them and scooping a few with an arm pull. The swim was beautifully organized, Dennis and my pilots simply outstanding.  The water is a bluish gray and more brackish than pure salt.  I thoroughly enjoyed this swim and time in Copenhagen. 

    WOWSA