“I was a little too tired to be scared … I said to myself, ‘just go with it, you’re a better swimmer than this, go with it.”
– Charleston City Council member and open water swimmer Kathleen Wilson
Molokai Meets its Match
By Charlie Morrison
The Lowcountry was first introduced to the artistic side of Pennsylvania native Kathleen Wilson in the late 1980’s, when the fresh-faced twenty-something was hired by the Charleston Symphony Orchestra (CSO) as their new principal harpist. In 2005, we bore witness to one of her other sides, Wilson’s political side, when she successfully campaigned for District 12 seat on Charleston City Council, representing James Island. The 49-year-old’s public persona has thrived in the Holy City’s arts and political communities, however, it is Wilson’s private side, specifically her status as one of the world’s elite competitive open water swimmers, that has truly cemented her place in the hearts and minds of Lowcountry residents. Wilson’s notable swimming resume gained another highlight, when earlier this month she achieved yet another personal milestone in becoming only the 25th swimmer to successfully traverse the precarious, 26-mile Molokai Channel that speeds between the Hawaiian islands of Oahu and Molokai.
A competitive swimmer her entire life, Wilson she only began completing marathon-length, open water swims beginning in 1997. She competed the first of the ‘Oceans Seven,’ considered the most difficult channel swims in the world, by swimming the English Channel in just over 13 hours back in 2001. She has since completed three more of the swims, including the Molokai channel, considered to be the world’s fourth-most difficult open water swim. The feat has placed Wilson amongst the world’s elite open water swimmers, something she’d never envisioned when she took on the challenging sport.
“Everything about me is a little quirky, a little off the beaten path,” says the 49-year-old Wilson of her choosing the dangerous sport open water swimming as a hobby. “We found that I was a better swimmer in the ocean than in the pool.”
Since she first left the pool for the ocean, Wilson has come a long way with her swimming. That growth has continued through and after she crossed the English Channel more than a decade ago. The intense daily training regimen Wilson has embraced proved invaluable earlier this month, as she’d need every ounce of endurance and experience in crossing the Molokai Channel.
To call swimming the Molokai Channel merely ‘challenging’ is to do the 26-mile, 700-meter-deep stretch a considerable disservice. Amongst the particular challenges to the swim are constant wind-blown ever-present white-capped waves and powerful rip currents. The occasional ship passing through the channel, along with chance encounters with a members of the channel’s diverse population of marine life further complicate matters. Pitfalls considered, Wilson was excited to get the opportunity to swim the Molokai Channel when the weather cleared earlier this month.
“It’s one of the world’s great swims, but it’s also a very low-key swim, not a lot of people know about it, not a lot of swimmers do it, mostly because they can’t,” says Wilson in a recent interview with JIM. “Most of the people who come over do not make it, that’s why this swim appealed to me.”
Wilson began her trek at 1 a.m., preparing to swim all night and most of the following day, finally arriving at Oahu’s Sandy Point sometime the next afternoon. The conditions proved to be far more difficult than she’d been promised upon jumping on a jetliner just days prior, however, and her pace suffered. “I was hit by big swells,” relates Wilson. “It was very, very tough, slow going.”
She arrived at a mental and physical crossroads of the swim as the sun rose high in the sky the next afternoon. Though she’d attempted to time the swim in order to avoid being exposed to the tropical sun for too long, she was behind her pace, faced six or seven more hours of swimming, and would have to mitigate the sun’s effects in continuing on. It was at that point that her husband Fred stepped in to assess his wife’s condition.
Wilson, who had scheduled breaks every half-hour in which the support team accompanying her would supply her with food and water, informed Fred she wanted to swim another 30 minutes, then reassess. “I thought about every reason in the world why I could quit. I had it really rationalized out, why I could go ahead and quit, that I had made a really valiant effort,” says Wilson. Upon reaching her next stopping point, a wave of optimism washed over her.
“It got another wind, probably my 32nd wind by then, but nonetheless I was back to it, I had resolved it in my mind and I was going to go 30 minutes at a time and not worry about the big picture, just to go 30 minutes at a time,” she continues.
“In that second thirty minutes I thought of all the reasons in the world why I couldn’t quit. I started thinking to myself, ‘wait a second, I can’t quit this thing,’” says Wilson. “I’ve never failed to complete a swim and I’m not going to lose this one. You could feel the tides really start to turn, mentally.”
Just as she felt her metal optimism take a decided turn, however, nature intervened, presenting Wilson with yet another conundrum, the unmistakable sting of a Man o’ War, which had, before long, encircled much of her body with its tentacles. The pain was excruciating.
“I was on fire, my whole body was on fire. I got pissed off, and I came up for a feed about 10 minutes later, and Fred said he saw the old Kathleen back. He was laughing, and said, ‘ok, here we go.’”
Wilson’s final challenge after swimming for miles through the anguish of the jellyfish stings was to actually make it ashore on Oahu. Her entry point, Sandy Beach, represents the intersection of powerful breaking sets of waves with a small spit of soft sand flanked on each side by volcanic rocks. The gravity was not lost on the swimmer who admits that she “would have been killed had I landed on the rocks.” After being dangerous barrel rolled twice by the head-high waves, Wilson was finally able to body surf the next one in to the beach, finally crawling ashore at exactly 10:41 p.m.
The lessons of the grueling experience were not lost on Wilson. “The main, very obvious thing is the amount of physical and mental growth between 2001 with the English Channel and what I was just able to take a couple of weeks ago. I can endure more hardship, and I’m not being glib when I say this, but it translates to public service.
“Every single swim I have been on, something weird has happened, there has been some twist. Be it swimming through injury, swimming through marine life, whatever it may be, it’s always a new adventure … there’s so much to be learned,” she continues. “I’ve developed the mental and the emotional skills to cope with that kind of adversity, that’s what I achieved with this swim that I had never achieved before.”
Kathleen Wilson represents James Island-based District 12 on Charleston City Council. She is also race director for Swim Around Charleston. For more information on Kathleen Wilson, see her personal web page at www.aquaharp.com. For more information on Swim Around Charleston, see www.swimaroundcharleston.com.