Her desire for conquest and competition has taken her to all corners of the globe. She's accustomed to uncomfortable surroundings and believes her threshold for pain is simply much greater than most others. What she's not familiar with is failure.
Two months ago, Kathleen Wilson failed to complete a long-distance swim. More than a dozen times, she's dipped her toes into dark, deep water and emerged every time at the other end. Some swims were as few as 10 miles, while others were almost three times as far.
Stroke after stroke, hour after hour ... the amount of time was not nearly as important as completing the objective. Wilson is wired that way. If you start something, you finish it. Whether the Strait of Gibraltar or the English Channel, there's a starting point and a finish line. Since 1997, every watery challenge attempted was checked off the list. Every one, except the last one: Cook Strait in New Zealand. With three miles remaining on this 17-mile swim, she quit responding to her handlers' directions. When pulled from the water, Wilson was incoherent and shaking uncontrollably. When asked questions, she uttered nothing but gibberish.
Weight and see?
Some two months later, her conversation about that moment is peppered with misgivings. Wilson ardently believes she failed to finish because she was underweight. Losing seven pounds months earlier made her too lean to combat the cold water that eventually sent her body into shock. She won't make that mistake again. “I should have eaten more ice cream.”
Wilson doesn't know if she'll return to New Zealand for a rematch. Once again, though, she's started her training regimen. Monday through Friday at 4:45 a.m., she leaves her James Island home and heads to the MLK pool in downtown Charleston. There, she swims 8,000-9,000 meters (five miles) in the darkness with barely enough light to see the painted line along the bottom.
It usually takes almost three hours. In addition, there are sessions in the weight room three days a week with an emphasis on the shoulders. She'll be 50 in June. That creates an additional race against time.
Wilson admits that some people probably think she's a little crazy. “I'm sure I get laughed at a lot,” says the mother of a teenage boy and a daughter in college.
The water is where she's most comfortable. Swimming feels more natural than walking.
The safety of the pool is one thing. What about all that lurks in the vast waters elsewhere?
In 2012 during a 26-mile swim in the Molokai Channel in Hawaii, Wilson endured 150 jellyfish stings. She's had blistered lips, clogged breathing passages and spontaneous nose bleeds. Sounds like great family vacations, huh?
Sink or swim
Wilson remains on Charleston City Council and continues to freelance as a professional harpist at weddings and special events. How does she afford these swim trips? “I live frugally, and we all drive old cars.”
Kathleen Wilson does all this for nobody other than Kathleen Wilson. It's her escape, yet her challenge. Her body and mind have recovered, and she readily admits she wants another shot at New Zealand.
The next time you get out of bed before the sun comes up, keep in mind that she's already been in the water a couple of hours.
Different strokes for different folks, right? If she can swim another four years, it'll give her 20 years in the sport. She loves it today for the same reason she loved her first swim around Key West, Fla., in 1997. No one else can do it for you.
When she returns to Cook Strait — and we all know that she will — let's all hope her training includes extra scoops of ice cream.
Reach Warren Reach Warren Peper at 937-5577 or firstname.lastname@example.org.