Charleston, S.C., native Kathleen Wilson prepares for her first distance swim since dual rotator cuff surgeries. The 56-year-old swam 19.5 miles in 8 hours, 40 minutes. (Contributed photo)

CAPE CARTERET — Marathon swimmer Kathleen Wilson needed a place to really put her body to the test again, and she found it on the Crystal Coast.

The Charleston, S.C., resident made the drive to Cape Carteret earlier this month for her first distance swim in nearly three years. Still recovering from two torn rotator cuff surgeries, the 56-year-old pioneer of marathon swimming covered 19.5 miles of Bogue Sound in approximately 8 hours, 40 minutes.

Wilson set off from the high-rise bridge to Emerald Isle on Saturday, Aug. 4, swimming alongside a pilot craft to the Atlantic Beach high-rise bridge.

“I felt great when I finished,” she said. “I was tired, but I could tell that my fatigue was from swimming and not injury. Now I have a good baseline as to where my shoulders and my body stand. Now it’s just a long road of work to get back to that elite level.”

Wilson is, indeed, an elite swimmer with a résumé worthy of her South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame induction in 2018. The former Charleston City councilwoman and 31-year principal harpist for the Charleston Symphony Orchestra has a deep passion for open-water swimming, having completed more than a dozen marathon events since 1997.

Wilson has swum longer distances in more strenuous waters, but her first-ever North Carolina coastal swim in Bogue Sound proved more therapeutic than anything.

“I have gone further and been in the water longer, but this swim means a tremendous amount to me,” Wilson said. “Many people, both naysayers and well-wishers, told me I was finished and it was time to rest on my laurels. I felt differently, working very carefully and steadily to rebuild myself, and I did.”

Wilson stuck a toe in the water, so to speak, earlier this year with a 10K swim in Charlotte, but this swim was her first real test since undergoing surgery in 2016 and 2017. For that, she needed a swimmer-friendly course between two fixed points, or in this case, two high-rise bridges.

“A friend of mine suggested (Bogue Sound) to me a few years ago,” Wilson said. “I filed it in the back of my mind, and now, recovering from these substantial shoulder injuries, I was looking for something to test myself and still if I had anything left. This course came back into my thoughts, and now was the perfect time. I was also looking for something non-competitive so I didn’t have to worry about someone passing me or trying to overtake someone.”

Wilson set about finding a resource or two near the course to help with her endeavor, and she found it on the U.S. Masters Swimming website.  

“I found the name and an email of a master swimmer in Cape Carteret, so I sent her a message and figured I had a 50-50 chance of hearing back,” Wilson said. “She (Maryanne Cushing) got back to me in probably 90 minutes.”

The luck of finding such support was doubled when she found out Cushing had a son who will be a senior this fall at The Citadel, the same alma mater as Wilson’s son. Add to that, Cushing’s son, Walker Whitley, was also a licensed boat captain.

“These things kept happening, and I kept feeling better and better about this swim because the stars were aligning,” Wilson said. “It was also a relief knowing I was dealing with a Citadel cadet, because they take instruction so well and they listen.”

Wilson set out for the swim with an enthusiastic but inexperienced crew of four at her side – Capt. Whitley, Dinah Whitley, Shirley Buckland and Cushing. Wilson, her face, chest and arms covered in Blistex, needed all the help she could get requiring water and snacks tossed to her on a line from the boat.

“I had substantial support,” she said. “With a swim like this, you have to take in nourishment all day while you’re in the water. It couldn’t be a kayak because we’re in a busy, high-traffic stretch of the Intracoastal Waterway.”

The swim began well with Wilson making solid time before running into an unexpected tidal swing.

“We flew for about three hours, making great progress,” Wilson said. “But even with the best of my tide calculations, we started running into the incoming tide at the end of it. We slowed to nothing. We sloshed around, and then we had a boat problem. The engine died, and we had a clogged fuel line.”

Wilson pointed out the difficulties boats often have in keeping the slow and steady pace of an open-water swimmer.

“The boat was very unhappy running at such a slow speed,” Wilson said. “To manage a swimmer, they’re in and out of neutral a lot and running the engine at bare minimum. A little gunk in the fuel line would normally blow out when you’re running the engines harder, but with this, it was just puttering. No fault, just the nature of the game.”

While repairs were made on the boat, an anchor was dropped to keep track of Wilson’s position while she bided her time in the water around the boat. Her roughly 70 minutes spent waiting is allowed by marathon swimming rules, provided she doesn’t use the boat to rest.

“Things like this happen during swims of this magnitude,” Wilson said. “Swimmers are allowed to continue, provided I don’t touch the boat at all. We had to account the time I spent treading water and swimming laps around the boat until the problem was resolved.”

Getting back on course proved to be a difficulty for Wilson who battled suddenly still waters with nothing but her arms and legs to propel her.

“There’s a multi-hour slack tide in that part of the sound during that part of the day,” she noted. “I made minimal progress for a couple of hours. There was water swirling around and the wind picked up, so I’m getting hit in the face with the chop from the waves. It did not make for very nice swimming. That’s when the voices start talking to you, saying ‘You can end this. You can just touch the boat and end this if you want.’

“I don’t give in to those voices.”

Whitley and the rest of the boat crew worked to make her swim a little easier, guiding her laterally across the water to swim calmer waters over shoals.

“That was good thinking on their part,” Wilson said. “We eventually started making progress again, just a little at first. I was able to cruise in the last few hours. I never question a pilot when a local is trying to make things easier for me.”

The scenery changed as she made her way from one end of the sound to the other. Flora and fauna turned to brick and mortar as she neared closer to the second bridge.

“I was watching docks and houses and buildings as I got closer to Morehead City,” Wilson said. “I would see how fast I could pass those buildings as a means of motivation.

“They saw the bridge before I did. Because of what it can do to your psyche, I don’t look for it. It’s futile to pick your head up and look for the bridge. It’s not going to get any closer. All I’m doing is disturbing my body position and creating more drag to slow me down.”

Wilson finally reached her destination, even getting some admiration from boats returning to port after seeing her on the way out that morning.

“There were perfect strangers cheering for me as they came in from the day and saw me still out there,” she said. “What wonderful people. Everyone I ran into was such a treasure.”

For Wilson, the swim was a massive success, allowing her to really test her rehabilitated shoulders while leaning on the non-competitive crutch of a solo swim.

“For my first big swim back,” she said, “I didn’t want to do anything competitive because I wasn’t sure I could trust myself to stop if I started having health problems. Once I get going and get in that competitive venue, I have trouble stopping.”

Wilson has fed her competitive side all her life. Reputed as the first marathon swimmer from either North or South Carolina, she is the first female swimmer in history and second ever to complete marathon swimming’s Grand Slam – English Channel, Manhattan Channel, Catalina Channel and the length of Tampa Bay. She is also the 13th swimmer to complete the Triple Crown – English Channel, Manhattan Island and Catalina Channel.

Wilson’s career has put her in some of the world’s most iconic waters, beginning in 1999 when she completed the 45.8K Manhattan Island Marathon Swim in 7 hours, 37 minutes at the age of 36. Other locales have included the 14.4K crossing of the Strait of Gibraltar between Spain and Morocco, the 42-K journey across the Molokai Channel from Molokai to Oahu in Hawaii, and the 57.9K marathon swim down the Red River from North Dakota to Minnesota.

In 2010, she became the first person to circumnavigate a course around the city of Charleston.  The following year, she marked a 12-mile course for a new annual event aptly called Swim Around Charleston. She is also creator and director of the SwimCalm program, dedicated to teaching adults with a fear of water how to work through the fear and learn to swim.

Between May 6-9 in 2015, she really stepped it up with participation in the S.C.A.R. Swim Challenge in Arizona at the age of 51. In four days, she swam distances of 13.3K in Saguaro Lake, 14.1K in Canyon Lake, 22.8K in Apache Lake and 10K in Roosevelt Lake.

That year was Wilson’s last for competitive swimming, followed by the two surgeries in 2016 and 2017.

“My upper body broke under the decades of hard work with little time off,” Wilson said. “I started to feel not right in 2016, like I had no power in my shoulders. Later that year, I was diagnosed with a complete rotator cuff tear in my right shoulder. I had surgery on that a few weeks later and asked them to do an MRI on my left shoulder because I thought that one might need some cleaning as well. The verdict came back dire on that one, too. That was a second surgery in 2017.”

Wilson spent the rest of that year and into 2018 in the pool while allowing her arms to recover from 43 years of swim practice, 20 of which were spent preparing for marathon swims.

“I spent all the rest of (2017) kicking in the pool since I couldn’t utilize my arms,” she said. “I just kicked, trying to piece a career, a sport and an income back together again. I used 2018 to get strong again. I didn’t want to waste another year not testing myself, so that’s when I made the decision to make this swim.”

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