For each episode of Child Safety Source, we sit down with a person who strives to improve water safety. Today, we’re chatting with Kathleen Wilson. She is the founder and owner of SwimCalm, an innovative program that teaches adults who have a fear of water how to swim.
As we’ve discussed previously on the Life Saver Pool Fence blog, you’re never too old for swimming lessons. Kathleen Wilson’s life-altering program combines the mental and physical elements of fear. Her goal is to prove to her students that the water is a friendly, comforting medium. Therefore, it is well within a student’s capacity to learn how to be comfortable in any depth of water and swim. The program enjoys an extremely high rate of success among its graduates due to its premise of healing fear rather than simply managing fear.
You can learn more in our full video interview:
Learning More About Kathleen Wilson
As you saw in the video, Kathleen Wilson knows water safety. For some more background, Wilson is an internationally recognized marathon swimmer. In addition to her organization, she teaches and coaches aquatics at the Medical University of South Carolina’s Student Wellness Center.
Kathleen was enshrined into the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame in May of 2018. When not in the water, she is a conservatory-trained professional harpist and has been principal harpist with the Charleston Symphony since 1987. These are just a few of her many accomplishments. Truly, Kathleen Wilson is an absolute talent.
What is SwimCalm?
Now let’s take a brief look at Kathleen Wilson’s organization, SwimCalm. First and foremost, SwimCalm serves an underserved segment of the population. As mentioned earlier, SwimCalm is dedicated to serving the high percentage of adults who experience anywhere from some fear to a profound level of fear of the water. The organization teaches these adults about the water’s properties while also teaches them how to feel safe in the water. According to its website, SwimCalm classes are vastly different from traditional swimming lessons. Classes are small, so students can control the pace of instruction.
To learn more about Kathleen’s organization, visit www.swimcalm.com.
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Below is a direct transcript of the Child Safety Source interview with Kathleen Wilson from September 17th, 2018:
Episode 41- Kathleen Wilson
Eric Lupton: We’re on the Internet, just like that. It’s magical.
Kathleen Wilson: It sure is. Well, good morning.
Eric: Good morning, how you doing?
Kathleen: I’m great.
Eric: Awesome. So, I’m glad that we have you here to talk to you today. I know Richard Kaufman talked to you and he’s a good friend of mine and he started the drowning warrior’s podcast. And I told him once that anybody that he thinks is worth talking to, I definitely want to as well. So, I know that you’re doing great work and you’re doing great things with Swim Calm and I wanted to get to know a little bit more about that. So, can you tell me a little bit more about what is Swim Calm what do you guys do?
Kathleen: Swim Calm is a specially designed program to teach adults with profound fear of water how to swim. And we find that, first of all it’s epidemic, adults with fear of water. And secondly, they come to me, the typical story is a grandmother who now has grandchildren and she’s not allowed to take care of the grandchildren because there’s a pool in the backyard and if something happened she can’t go in to save them.
I also get a lot of people who say you know this has been on my bucket list, I had a really bad experience when I was a little kid. And it’s amazing what one bad ocean undertow will do or one dunking, inappropriate dunking in a pool. It costs people decades of their lives. So, I get a lot of sad stories, mad stories, glad stories, but nevertheless they’re happy to come to me.
Eric: So, what is the methodology that you use to take adults who are terrified, to happy?
Kathleen: Well, first of all let the adult be in control of the class, don’t dictate, this is not a conventional teacher- student relationship. What I do, is I take them through a series of skills very slowly at their pace and demystify the water. And show them, because the reason they can’t swim is they’re panicked when they get in the water. So, how do we address the panic? We have to address the panic and get them to settle down internally and mentally and we do that through a series of exercises and skills. And I am the facilitator, I don’t call myself the teacher, I’m the facilitator.
Eric: Very nice, have you ever spoken to [Millan Dash]?
Eric: Got you. Okay. Do you guys agree on some stuff, do you disagree?
Kathleen: We agree on a lot. I have chosen to develop my own, I know of her program but I’ve just chosen to do some things differently, as well as make it affordable for the average person.
Eric: Okay. So, how much do a lesson cost, roughly?
Kathleen: Well, I teach it as a course and it’s a full sixteen hour course and it’s four hundred for sixteen hours. And I’m not very, very, lucky to have use of the city of Charleston pools; the city has been very kind to me in the use of their pools, so while we don’t have the entire pool at our disposal, we have a nice big chunk of it and by virtue of that I bring students in, we work and we keep coming back for eight two hour sessions.
Eric: Very nice. Why that timely, why two eight hour sessions?
Kathleen: Well, first of all the two hour sessions go by much faster than most students would think because they’re coming to me afraid, nervous, they don’t know what’s going to happen to them and they get in the water and before they know it two hours have gone by. And they say “wow, I just never dreamed”. But that’s the time that’s necessary to really get in the spirit of the game and have a chance to keep practicing these skills. You know, by the time with the conventional lesson, thirty minutes you’re in and out; you haven’t had a chance to really settle and adapt and begin to learn.
Eric: How long have you been doing this?
Kathleen: Since ‘2011’.
Eric: ‘2011’. And what did you do before?
Kathleen: Well, I still have multi jobs, I mean, I’m very, very, involved in aquatics. I teach Swim Calm, I am working with conventional swimming and a conventional little youth team, I’m also a swimmer myself. But by training and education, I’m a classical musician, so I’m still playing at a symphony orchestra.
Eric: Oh, wow. Really cool. So, what makes you decide to get into doing these kinds of lessons?
Kathleen: I saw the need and as a marathon swimmer myself, I mean I’ve done most of the world’s great swims; there was this very interesting dynamic of swimming at the very highest level in the most dangerous conditions, but yet turning my attention to the most vulnerable. And as I have often said, fearful swimmers are not under- served, they’re not served at all.
Eric: Yeah, I agree that completely you know and I think we talked about this a little bit previously, but I think there is a connection between fearful adults and children drowning. You know, obviously, if adults don’t know how to swim, kids never do as well.
Kathleen: That’s right and I have found, because I talk to my students, I get to know them a little bit and what I have found is they take two distinct courses. There are those who say, “I grew up afraid and the water was a bad place, but my children by golly they’re going to learn to swim and they’re going to swim well”. I have that mind-set and then I have, “you know what, we don’t go near the water, we have it for generations, but I’m really interested in this because I have a trip coming up to St Croix and I want to get in the water”.
Eric: That makes a lot of sense you know and what do you typically see as your success rate?
Kathleen: It’s into the ninetieth percentile, ninety percent and above. And again, that defines you know, what is swimming. What we often see, are people who start… the classical swim instructor, just move your legs and put your face in the water, blow some bubbles and you’re going to be fine and just do this. And I see people thrashing through the water for fifteen feet in sort of a hybrid or freestyle, the conventional freestyle and then the instructor says, “Okay, great, you passed the test, you can swim now”. That’s not it at all, that person can’t swim, in fact in some cases you’ve made that person more dangerous.
So, it’s what is swimming? Define what is swimming. And to my definition: just hanging out at the pool and being able to float around and say you know what I want to very calmly swim over to the other side of the pool by whatever stroke or whatever method you want to. But if you can get across that pool regardless of the depth in a calm state of mind and come up and take a breath when you want to, therefore you’re swimming.
Eric: So, how long… when did you start doing the marathon swimming?
Kathleen: I’ve been in marathon swimming since the late ‘1990s’. So, twenty- one years now.
Eric: And what got you into that?
Kathleen: I couldn’t sprint and so, you know, I moved to Charleston right out of graduate school and assumed the position with the symphony. And I was in the symphony for years and swam conventional meets and found that you know, I just wasn’t happy doing that anymore and you know I live right by the ocean, so I’d get in the ocean and swim and I was much happier without the black lines, without the wall, I don’t care about not being able to see the bottom. And from there the distances got longer and longer and the swims became more and more prestigious.
Eric: Alright, so what are some of the ones you’ve done?
Kathleen: Well, I’ve done the English Channel, because that’s the one that everyone wants to know about. So, I have swam around Manhattan, I’ve done the English Channel in Tampa Bay, Catalina Channel, Santa Barbara Channel, Strait of Gibraltar, Long Island Sound, [Leg Zurich], the [inaudible 00:07:43] channel in Hawaii. But a lot of swims.
Eric: Wow, that’s really cool.
Kathleen: So, I’ve done fifteen, sixteen of the world’s greatest swims.
Eric: That’s pretty awesome. Is there any left on the list?
Kathleen: Oh, there are a few, but unfortunately in ‘2017’, it was the year of bilateral rotator cuff surgery.
Eric: Oh, yeah.
Kathleen: You know, forty years in an orchestra and thirty five years ago in a swim practice or forty years ago in swim practice. So, I took time off obviously to have those surgeries and recover, but I’m ramping back up and I’m stronger than ever.
Eric: That’s awesome. So, what do you play in the orchestra?
Eric: Harp. Okay.
Kathleen: I think there is one right over there.
Eric: I see it. You know, you couldn’t have picked a harder instrument, you know, just the harp.
Kathleen: Well, you think about this very static position that I have to stay in, my upper body never got a rest for all of the years. So, now that you know, it’s kind of come down, it’s a little bit of a new chapter in life and Swim Calm is the most gratifying work that I can do. And it’s not terribly stressful on my shoulders.
Eric: So, did you know this is something you wanted to do growing up, I mean was this the plan all along?
Kathleen: Oh no, no, no. I just knew that I love the water and you know when I was a little kid I had announced my family that I was going to grow up by the ocean where it was warm. You know, this is from a landlocked Pennsylvania and by golly if I didn’t grow up and move next to the ocean where it’s warm.
Eric: And you moved to the ocean and then you know, what were you doing at that time?
Kathleen: Playing in the orchestra and just playing you know, twenty weddings a month and things like that, just working really hard. But I always swam and I always competed and then my world just started to change; you know, all these years sitting in an orchestra, it gets dull playing the same repertoire after a while and the nature of the work changed and the nature of the position, it was downgraded. So, I had to augment with other things and you know, swimming has always been a constant and then you know, I took some of this training with it with adults and said, this is truly what I want to do. Keeps me in the water, makes me happy.
Eric: What does it take to prepare to do something like swim the English Channel or around Manhattan?
Kathleen: It takes a lot of flat out training. The two major obstacles that we have are (a) just the distance and preparing for that and the water temperatures, it’s very, very, cold. So, these are cold water swims and we have to prepare by virtue of training in cold water and that’s the hardest part, that’s absolutely the hardest part is getting in that cold water. And especially living in the southeast along the coast, it’s hard to get that cold, so I would go out in the middle of the winter and go swimming out in the ocean, in the middle of the winter because that was the best way to prepare.
And then you know, keeping a certain percentage of body fat. I mean, I’ve kind of leaned out a little bit now, but you know, marathon swimmers are not small people. They called me the skinniest one that’s ever done these swims.
Eric: And is that by design? I mean, usually when I think of swimmers, I think of somebody kind of lean and you know, swimmer’s body if you will.
Kathleen: That’s conventional pool swimming. But when you get to the world of Marathon and you’re subject to that cold water and the push and pull of the ocean or a lake or river, you’re going to be in there for twelve to twenty four hours.
Kathleen: You need to be prepared.
Eric: Twelve to twenty-four hours? Is there any breaks? I mean, obviously it’s a marathon, you just keep going the whole time, right?
Kathleen: That’s right, that’s right. I mean, we do take feed breaks, I stop every thirty minutes for a feed but it’s not an opportunity to rest. Essentially, what I’m doing is grabbing a feed bottle, chugging six to eight ounces of a very heavy carbohydrate type fluid, drop the bottle, continue on. So, there is no rest. If you think about it, in cold water you know, you’ll get hypothermic, you stop swimming, your body begins to cool down, and muscles begin to tighten up.
Eric: And where are you carrying those bottles or is somebody there with you?
Kathleen: That’s on the support boat, that’s on a support boat or a Kayak. Sometimes I have a support boat, sometimes I have a kayak and sometimes I have both.
Eric: Okay, just to make sure you don’t, I guess drown while you’re out there?
Kathleen: Well, they set the course. They set the course, and you have to keep in mind, this is not like triathlon where you’ve got a police officer at every intersection managing the traffic or you know, barricades, we’re in the wild open sea. So, you know, they’re keeping an eye on what’s going on around me; weather conditions, wind, and marine life. I mean, I’ve been more stung more times than I can count…
Eric: Oh, Jesus.
Kathleen: And that’s just the name of the game.
Eric: I guess it doesn’t matter what kind of suit you wear…?
Kathleen: No, we have to be legal. So, again the rules of the sport are very traditional; one suit of a non- heat retaining material, one cap of a non-heat retaining. So, that means no neoprene. Goggles, earplugs and grease.
Eric: And that’s it?
Kathleen: That’s right.
Eric: So, that’s not stopping a sting by any means?
Kathleen: Oh, sting, you just keep swimming right through.
Eric: [Laughing]. So you know, you talk about the cold, Bob Pratt who’s a good friend of mine wanted me to ask you about controlling panic in cold water. And he says, in his experience even good swimmers can get into trouble while falling into cold water.
Kathleen: That’s right, that’s right, because it hit that cold water and the first instinct is to tighten up and stop breathing. And so, you have to continue, continue to breathe. Essentially, when I’m entering cold water, if I don’t have to get my face and my head wet right away, then I don’t… you know, sort of do this and then ease into it. But experience, that’s why the sport is not for the timid or the inexperienced, you have to be prepared to get out there.
Eric: And what about regular people you know, not necessarily people doing a marathon but people who are already scared of the water or who panicked into the cold water… you know, or someone, a regular person who gets in the water, they didn’t expect to be in and they panic in cold water, what should those people do? I think that was like four questions, so sorry about that.
Kathleen: That’s okay. Again, remember, it’s the same substance regardless of the temperature. You know, in Swim Calm, obviously I want the warmest water possible to take away that distraction from my students. But if somebody was to fall off a dock or fall out of a boat in the cold water, again, realize it’s the same stuff, it’s going to behave the same way; float, come up, try to regulate your breathing or hold your breath. Just lie there, try to regulate- in, out, in, out. Don’t allow that panic and that constriction to set in because that’s when you tend to start dipping below the water a little bit and then you can see it snowballs on itself.
Eric: I mean, that makes a lot of sense, you know. And you know, I know that there’s an instinctual response that kicks in when you hit cold water, when got like gasp reflex and if you get into a calm state, start floating you know, your odds for survival shoot up. I don’t know what the stat is, but it’s a lot you know.
Kathleen: That’s right, that’s exactly right. So, hang in there and simply get flip over on your back, breathe in, breathe out or do a little bit of breast stroke. And again, it’s one of those things that I continually work on, as soon as the water temperatures start cooling off that’s when you’ll see me out there in the open ocean in Charleston.
Eric: Are you planning to resume back into doing the marathons?
Kathleen: I want to, I want to touch that international level one more time. You know, my body has been weakened but it’s coming back, but my mind… that’s the interesting phenomenon, is my mind is stronger than ever and my body saying, “hey, come on, this is twenty plus years, when do we get a break?”
Eric: Right. What’s the name of the swimmer… forgive me, who did the… she was a woman and she wasn’t young and she did an impressive record breaking swim. I’m forgetting what it was, I’m hoping you’ll remember for me.
Kathleen: Oh you’re thinking… oh, you’re thinking of [Nyad], probably.
Eric: Probably. What was that?
Kathleen: Yeah. Well, she says she swam from Cuba to Key West.
Eric: Yes, I believe it was. You don’t think so?
Kathleen: Yeah. In the marathon world, I’m not going to pass judgment, I haven’t seen the logs but there are some discrepancies in the story.
Eric: Okay. Yeah.
Kathleen: Just leave it at that.
Eric: Because she was allegedly the first one to do it, right?
Kathleen: Yes. Susan Maroney did it in a shark cage some years prior, but a shark cage is illegal because it creates an artificial [inaudible 00:16:21] or a draft.
Eric: Like racing behind another car?
Kathleen: That’s right, that’s right. So, you know, while I completely understand being in a shark cage out there because it’s kind of hammerhead alley, but there again Diana Nyad followed a streamer underwater the whole time and did some other things that we don’t do in the sport.
Eric: Got you. And so, is the [inaudible 00:16:44] she took a break or what do they think she did to make it not..?
Kathleen: I really don’t know, I’ve stayed away from the controversy.
Eric: Okay, fair enough. It’s a shame that there seems to be you know, you talked about you and her, lot of women…
Kathleen: Yes, yes. This tends to be a female dominated sport because women carry more body fat.
Kathleen: And again, we need that bit of body fat just as the insulation, it’s also a source of calories because when you’re in the water that many hours, you exhaust your carbohydrate stores. You pull every bit of carbohydrate out of your muscles, you deplete your liver, those stores and then you go to body fat. And that’s an ugly transition sometimes when I’m swimming along… and happens around the five hour mark for me, between about five and six or seven hours. All at once, I have a bad thirty minutes, at all I feel terrible, I can’t figure out why, I’m starting to blame my conditioning and then it kicks in, “oh, wait a second, you’re making the transition to body fat”. And then I feel fine again.
Eric: So, does the thirty minute window where your body’s which is really carbs to body fat…?
Kathleen: Well, it depends.
Eric: [inaudible 00:00:17]. Yeah. And you feel it intensely.
Kathleen: Well, all at once I did, I hit a new level of fatigue and I’m just not feeling crisp. I’m not feeling crisp in the water, I’m not really sure what’s going on, I don’t like to know how long I’ve been in the water, that’s a detail I don’t need to know; just one arm in front of the other, keep going. But usually I have some idea of how long I’ve been in and also I can read the Sun or the moon, for the matter if it’s all night. So, I know, I know and you just have to suck it up, it’s one of the things in the sport, you have to have a lot of mind control in this sport
Eric: You know that switching from carb to body fat, period of fatigue; you know, ketosis is a big thing right now, a lot people are on the Keto diet. And a lot of people describe what they call a Keto flue, where you stop eating carbs and you know, go to ketosis and you have this you know, either of couple day to a week period where you feel really tired and craggy. And I think for a lot of people, it’s like a sodium, they need it but also just to switch from you know, feeding off carbohydrates to body fat. So, it’s interesting that you experience the same thing, but in a very concentrated sort of way.
Kathleen: Yes, it sure is. But I think it’s just it’s getting your mind under control and it doesn’t matter what aspect of life it is. I mean, I do that marathon swimming, so I’ve learn how to do that, I can shape it for swim calm, I can help students with that, I try and use those tactics in other facets of life.
Eric: Plus, you know, you’ve got to before, so you know that in thirtyish minutes or so, it’s going to run out, that you’re going to be on the other side of it and life goes on.
Kathleen: That’s right, that’s right.
Eric: That’s the big help as well. So, you know, how does someone…? you know, back to swim calm. You know, when someone’s in a swim calm class, why do they learn the way they do and why is it a better place for fearful students?
Kathleen: Because I tell them, I give them those thousand bits of information that nobody ever taught them. There’s a whole lot to know about swimming before you simply put your face in the water and kick nicely and move your arms. There’s a whole level of swimming or preparation that most students have never experience, especially fearful because an instructor hasn’t known to teach them that or has glossed over it and never realized just how important all those little bits of information are.
It’s really important for example when a student, when I finally get around to having them exhale under water, which isn’t the first or second class but for example, it helps to tell them, that when you exhale out of your nose you’re going to feel a little tickling sensation as those bubbles run up your face. There’s nothing to worry about, but it will take a little bit and it’s a sensation that you have never experienced; they welcome that tiny little tidbit of information, nobody ever thought to tell him that. And so, they come up and they’re laughing, said “wow, I really did feel that”. and I said, “no, when you exhale through your mouth it’s going to be even more profound because your mouth is bigger than your nostrils”.
Kathleen: So, it’s that kind of preparation and that attention to minute details and allowing that student time to process those details without rushing them through it or telling them, “oh, you didn’t do a very good job, you just need to come take the course again”. Cut him a break.
Eric: I mean, that makes a big difference. DO you have any other detail, because that was really interesting?
Eric: Is there another detail that you’d like to… because I like that one actually, is was good.
Kathleen: Yeah. It’s a really, really, good detail; for example, when they are floating and they’re Antsy, what they’re typically going to do, is if they’re holding on to the gutter, you’re going to watch their hands just dance above the gutter. And I call that playing the piano.
Eric: I was going to say that’s exactly what it looks like. Yeah.
Kathleen: Yes, yes, [inaudible 00:21:50], no just be aware you’re playing the piano a little bit. Why don’t you give the keyboard a rest and allow your hands to be very stationary. And if you feel like you need to grip more on the wall, that’s fine. If you feel like you can go to a lesser grip, that’s okay.
And one other very, very, important detail, is I never fool my students, never ever. If I say I am right next to you and my hand is going to be on your back, don’t move away and say “See, I knew you could do it by yourself, you didn’t need me”. Be true to your word and that’s how you build that good foundation with a student.
Eric: So, why do people do the play the piano, what is that about?
Kathleen: That’s nerves. They haven’t built up the confidence yet, they haven’t built up the trust in themselves, and they don’t fully grasp the skill yet. They understand it in their minds but their bodies are not quite ready to accept the skill yet and they just need a little more time to work through that. And that’s fine, take all the time that that particular student needs, eventually it will come. But that’s just one sign and I’m watching body language all the time and I’m watching facial expressions and soliciting feedback from the students. And they say “yeah, yeah, I felt good”. Okay, no you felt better but I saw you playing the piano a