Kathleen Wilson grew up at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania’s Three Rivers Stadium. Here she’d wait for the arrival of her Steelers, greet them, and then join her parents in their front row seats. “Honestly, my beloved Steelers, and those Sunday afternoons in the 1970’s, formed me. I learned about team and commitment from watching how those men performed and interacted. They were solid. Not flamboyant. Not attention seeking, just solid.”
Today, Kathleen uses these early observations and lessons in all areas of her diverse life in Charleston, South Carolina (SC). She’s a 30-year principal harpist with the symphony orchestra. She’s also a three-term city councilwoman and accomplished marathon swimmer and aquatics coach. Kathleen admits she lives a life of extremes.
She and her husband, Fred, have two children. Christine, 23, a U.S. Navy ensign, is training to become a helicopter pilot. Robbie, 20, is a junior mechanical engineering major at the Citadel. She’s also the proud caretaker of Lulu, Duke and Daisy. These rescue rabbits “are very sweet gentle animals fully capable of defending themselves when needed.” Kathleen knows both personalities firsthand.
To be successful Kathleen has blended fierceness with gentleness. She possesses a deep sense of commitment. This and her ability to press, and press relentlessly, originate from swimming. Being highly disciplined and enduring torment also originate from swim training. “Maybe that’s why I hold elected office.”
Remarkably, Kathleen has been swimming for 42 years. “I was not an outstanding swimmer growing up. I was the forgotten and ignored one.” It didn’t become clear until much later in life that Kathleen was an ocean swimmer, not a pool swimmer. She lacked speed for the classic 50 and 100 yard events. Instead, she possessed the tolerance and endurance for overnight ocean swimming and being pummeled in the rough surf.
Kathleen started ocean swimming after moving to SC in 1987. “I discovered I liked the ocean a lot more, given my lack of sprinting speed.” She settled into the waters and learned to handle the physical tossing around of the ocean and the mental game of being out there. It was appealing. It required Steeler toughness. She was all in.
She was fortunate to be coached by Charleston’s assistant USA Swimming coach Andrew Wunderley from 1998-2005. Kathleen talked Wunderley into training her for the 1999 Swim Around Manhattan, New York. He didn’t know anything about marathon swimming. Yet, over time, the duo became one of Charleston’s most successful coach/athlete combinations. Wunderley simply took the time to make adjustments to Kathleen’s technique and applied good, sound USA Swimming distance training principles.
Brought Sport to SC
Kathleen is credited with introducing marathon swimming to SC. It was virtually unknown before she participated in the annual 12 Mile Swim Around Key West event in 1997. Her 2001 English Channel Swim was big news locally. So much so that the local newspaper flew a crew to England to follow her journey. An entire region became familiar with marathon swimming and even hosted an airport homecoming celebration.
Kathleen’s initial goal was to simply complete the events. Now marathon swimming has morphed into a way of life and living at a higher level. “It’s about accepting hardship and challenging myself to do better. I’ve learned a lot about life spending countless hours training and swimming alone.” I’ve learned:
- How to train properly outside of the water with weights, food and rest.
- How to take care of my body, specifically shoulders
- How to sacrifice to fund swims. These are not cheap.
- How to value those who support and accompany me, including husband, Fred, and training partner and friend, Lesley Fanning. This isn’t a solo sport. Marathon swimmers require an excellent crew.
- How to appreciate the adventures and experiences of these swims. I’ve seen and done things I never dreamed of. I’ve met people I’d otherwise never meet. I’ve put myself in extraordinary circumstances; some fantastic, some dangerous, and some challenges I couldn’t forecast. Sharks aren’t the most dangerous obstacle. The unexpected is. Wind, jellyfish and hypothermia also present challenges.
- How to carefully plan. This isn’t done foolhardily. Alternate scenarios are prepared and everything is well thought out every time the open water is entered. This is not daredevil activity.
With an appetite for continuous challenge, Kathleen set her sights on representing James Island on the Charleston City Council. She ran and was defeated in 2002. She won in 2005. She’s now in the last year of her third term and plans to seek a fourth. “I needed to expand my mind and skill set. Music is extremely isolating and one-dimensional.” Armed with a Bachelor of Music (1985) and Master of Music in Harp Performance (1987) from the Cleveland Institute of Music, Kathleen felt a bit intimidated by the process. “I had no law or business degree; however, serving the public and acquiring considerable knowledge and learning how to make sound decisions appealed to me.” Former Mayor Joseph P. Riley assured her the main skills were common sense and a good heart and that she could learn the rest. She has.
Presently, Kathleen is putting all of herself into getting a premier, major aquatics facility built for the citizens of Charleston. “No one ever died because he didn’t play tennis or soccer or ride a bike. Too many have because they didn’t swim. We are hopelessly behind as a community in creating good, sustainable athletic facilities that communities are demanding today. I will get this done.”
Swim Calm & Swim Around Charleston
As if being a member of the symphony, training for marathon swims and serving on city council weren’t enough, in 2010 Kathleen created Swim Around Charleston. The 12 mile swim, hosted each fall, is an excellent way to introduce new swimmers to the sport. Participants also train for future swims and determine if the sport appeals to them. Swim Around Charleston is known nationally as a well-managed event.
Kathleen’s also founded SwimCalm, a course teaching fearful adults to swim. Many of her students have failed traditional swim lessons. Under her guidance, they’ve gained both confidence and the ability to comfortably swim.
Soft People on Her Mind
So, what does this hard-driving, dedicated woman do to de-stress? “Baking is my therapy from swimming. Swimming is my therapy from life.” In addition, Kathleen enjoys reading and picking up bits of knowledge daily.
Spoken like a 1970’s die-hard Steeler’s fan, Kathleen is deeply concerned about the ‘softening of people.’ “It seems like we can’t withstand hardship anymore. There is declining knowledge and disinterest in important matters world-wide.” She believes everything is distilled into soundbites because of our failure to concentrate and see something from beginning to end.
She doesn’t lose sleep over this, but despises it. One thing she’s most grateful for is her lifelong excellent health. “Nothing can buy that. It’s impossible to recapture once gone. I treasure it daily.”
In the meantime, she’s going to keep fighting for a Charleston aquatics center, ensuring all learn to swim. She will continue to surround herself with a menagerie of rabbits. They provide much-needed calm and lower her blood pressure so she can keep doing what she loves and enjoys for a good long while.
©Copyright. October 2016. Linda Leier Thomason
All Rights Reserved.
Share this post with swimmers at all skill levels, those who think they don’t have enough time to publicly serve and those who just enjoy reading about inspirational people like Kathleen.