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 little bit. Yeah you did, you caught me.
So, it’s a give and take, but it’s also experience, it’s the experience of teaching a lot and working with a lot of students over a lot of years.
Eric: So, how many students do you typically teach in a year?
Kathleen: It varies dramatically depending on pool availability. I would say, probably twenty to twenty- five and you’ll say, that’s a really low number. But it’s pretty concentrated. Just because I don’t take more than three in a class, if I get that fourth or fifth students who want to come in, then I bring in an assistant because it’s very important to keep that ratio very low, (a) because you’re dealing with a subset of adults with this fear and there has to be a lot of one on one attention. But you know, they’re paying for a one on one attention too.
So, it pays to have that extra set of hands just if nothing else to say to a student, I’m right next to you, I’ve got your back, literally.
Eric: [Laughing]. And it seems like you definitely don’t do anything halfway, which I’m personally like that, I appreciate that. You know, you’ve done this, you do swimming, so of course [inaudible 00:24:20] marathon swimming. If you’re going to play music, then clearly you’re going to perform at the highest level in orchestra. If you have to pick an instrument, you’re going to pick literally the hardest instrument alive, which is the harp.
It seems to me that it seems to be a trend, would you say that’s something that’s been your [inaudible 00:24:36]?
Kathleen: Yeah. Go big or go home.
Kathleen: Yeah, that’s right, that’s how I’ve chosen to live.
Eric: [Laughing]. And is there any reason you’ve decided to go that way, is it built in or…?
Kathleen: It’s built in, you know, currently I served three terms on Charleston City Council. I just got off the Council in January and you know, it’s finally time to stop beating my head on the wall. So, it actually feels good sometimes when you stop beating your head on the wall. But what a wonderful experience to help run a medium sized city for twelve years and the skill set that that brought and how it helped me with all these other facets of my life. And currently, I’m working with a consortium of partners to build a major aquatics facility locally.
Kathleen: We don’t have a quality aquatics facility.
Eric: And where are you actually?
Kathleen: Charleston South Carolina.
Eric: Okay, and there’s not really a nice aquatic facility in that area?
Kathleen: No, no, we’ve got city pools and neighborhood pools, but nothing comprehensive and nothing that the area can truly go to and is all encompassing with a hundred percent of aquatics.
Eric: It seems like the idea of the community pool is kind of faded from its heyday back in the, we’ll say ‘60s’, maybe? Where the pool was a place where people went, there was you know, gathering around it, you know, you’d see people there, I was very social. It seems like people don’t go to the pool like that anymore, do you agree with that?
Kathleen: Yes and no, there are all of the subdivisions you know, all of these planned subdivisions put in pools. But yeah, I mean, I’ll go to…I think it depends on the nature of the subdivision and the demographics. In some cases if it’s a big pool with a lot of young families, yes they’re going to go to the pool all the time. But you know, it’s just a question of getting these kids in and teaching them to swim and obviously, it would be great to have me out of business in a generation and have no more fearful swimmers, but that’s not going to happen.
So, the neighborhood pool is a place to start, but when they come to me then they can go back to that setting and that’s what’s so nice. Forevermore, they can get in a pool comfortably, being on a vacation, be it back in the subdivision pool. It’s really nice to be able to hand somebody a chunk of life that they’ve never experienced before.
Eric: Right, I mean you know, so much of the world is water, so many of the things we do recreationally are in the water and someone who’s scared of water is robbed of all of that. You know, even things close to it; you know, beaches, boats, cruise ships probably, you know…
Kathleen: That’s right.
Eric: Which would have to be a crime for me, I’m a giant cruise ship fan, so that would be terrible. But it’s a big part of our world and it’s hard not to be able to do it.
Kathleen: That’s right. It’s astonishing though how you’ll have a corporate executive who has to go on to dinner cruise, you know is at a convention, there’s a dinner cruise that night, just happens to get sick couple hours before dinner cruise. For whatever reason, he cannot get on that boat because of a fear of water. I’ve had a lot of students who cannot cross a bridge, a high level bridge in a car because they just have this thought process of the bridge collapsing and going in the water. The collapsing part doesn’t faze them, it’s going into the water.
So, it’s astonishing the stories that are out there and what I hear from people.
Eric: What age ranges do you currently see? Are they typically people who are a bit older or…?
Kathleen: I see all ages. I will tell you, my number one demographic is women say thirty- five to sixty-five.
Kathleen: And then probably men, say forty- five to sixty- five.
Eric: Why do you think that is, that women thirty-five to sixty- five?
Kathleen: I think women might have an easier time admitting that there’s a fear there and something that they want to get past. I have found, actually men have been my hardest cases and some, in a lot of respect. Sometimes because they have a more dense body build, they don’t carry the body fat that women do, so they have a little tougher time with some of the skills and they don’t understand that it’s perfectly fine if their feet are hanging on the bottom and they’re this sort of angle. It’s okay because we all expect to be perfectly up on the surface and if you’re not perfectly up on the surface, then you have failed. And that’s not the case at all.
Eric: Right. As long as your mouth is out, essentially.
Kathleen: As long as you’re okay there, it doesn’t matter what you look like, as long as you’re okay with the skill; in your mind, you are settled and you’re not panicking.
Eric: Lori Kaufman, that’s her, she floats apparently at a forty- five like that, you know.
Kathleen: Yeah. Well, that’s perfectly normal, that’s perfectly typical. As a matter of fact, I can tell what kind of condition my legs are in; right now, my legs are really of good shape and I float like this. If I start to float I might feel my legs sinking, sinking, and sinking. And then, when I’m not in such good condition and I’m carrying a bit more body fat, I plane out. So, it’s really interesting I can tell what my fitness level is by how I float.
Eric: That’s funny. So, if someone does float at forty- five like that, you could almost take it as a compliment that that means they’re [inaudible 00:29:56].
Kathleen: In a lot of cases, yeah. And even in deep water and that’s what really freaks people out. They’re not doing this in the deep water, their legs are going down, down, down. But the fact of the matter is, you do have two lungs that are filled with air; you’re going to plane out at some point because we can float vertically as well. Most people think of floating on your back, on your front but you can also float vertically and you can also float on your side.
Eric: You float on your side?
Kathleen: Oh, yeah, yeah. Have you ever just extended out and just hung out in the water, floated on your side? That’s the basis of sidestroke.
Eric: Okay, that makes sense. I’ve done….
Kathleen: One of those thousand bits of information.
Eric: You know, that’s kind of cool. You know, I guess I can see it, I just never thought about it, you know, I’ve never thought about someone hanging on their side like I do in bed.
Kathleen: That’s right.
Eric: So, I misunderstood Lori. [She said she don’t float at all]. But she’s coming to you and she will. So, that’s good.
Kathleen: I can’t wait to meet her, so it’s going to be wonderful. But most people float better than they think they do. I’ve had all sort of students who have come in and said, “Oh, I can’t float, I’ve never been able to float”. I have them floating in thirty minutes, twenty- thirty minutes.
Eric: And you know, for Lori and anybody else, you know, if I can do it in a wheelchair with cerebral palsy and I can’t walk. If I can float and I can, then literally anybody can.
Kathleen: That’s right.
Eric: It’s definitely possible you know, for sure. So, you talked a lot about applying the skills you learn through swimming and through the swim calm to other parts of your life you know, do you have any examples of that?
Kathleen: Well, getting this aquatic center done. I mean, we talk about an enormous, enormous task and it’s just like a marathon swim; you’ve got to do things in the right order and nibble away one tiny task a day and you’re still making forward progress. That’s why in a marathon swim, if I’m swimming down a river and I remember turning at the northern tip of Manhattan and starting to swim down the Hudson River, of course the George Washington Bridge is there… don’t look at the bridge, it’s not going to get closer for a long, long, time.
So, don’t make yourself a crazy person and think to the very end before you’ve addressed the next ten strokes.
Eric: That makes a lot of sense. You know, if you can kind of keep your eye on the work and not on the prize we’ll say, you tend to do a lot better.
Kathleen: Right. The price is there and the prize will come, but it’s going to take time to get to the prize. Meanwhile, focus on the task at hand and you will see tangible progress. I mean, that’s how I do these swims; You know, if I’m swimming somewhere all night, of course it’s dark, it’s dark all night as we know. So, I’m swimming along, I don’t count the hours and I don’t pick my head up all the time looking for the first crack of dawn. [Inaudible 00:32:46], it’s night, it’s going to be dark for a long time, let’s enjoy the ride. Settle in, let your mind adapt and keep making forward progress.
Eric: And you have to enjoy the process as well, right. If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, you know, you’ll never make it to the prize anyways. So, you have to enjoy swimming to enjoy winning the race.
Kathleen: Absolutely, I love to train, that’s how I blew two rotator cuffs. I absolutely love to train, I love to race, I love to get out and do the swims, I love to teach swim calm. And again, that involves on a very, very, small level, those detail and moving forward one detail at a time. Yes, I would love to be able to fast forward to the end, but that’s part of society, we’re a very instant gratification based society anymore. A lot of people have forgotten process.
Eric: Yeah, I think anything you’re going to do you have to appreciate the process and that’s whether it’s a business or learning to play the harp; you know, everybody wants to be the rock star on stage, but if you don’t enjoy practicing four hours a day then you know that part never becomes.
Kathleen: That’s right.
Eric: It’s hard to teach somebody.
Kathleen: Yes, it’s very hard to teach someone. But once they’ve gone through it, you know, with something like swim calm, I’ve watched students take those skills and then apply them elsewhere. Or they can take them, transfer them to work or work sometimes transfers to swim calm and we have to get that sorted out. But at any rate, it’s a great chance for students to back out of the normal series of life and say you know, I have to learn how to take a breath, and I’ve got to do it by Tuesday, by Tuesday session. No you don’t.
Kathleen: As a matter of fact, if you don’t set the expectation, you’ll probably be able to do it sooner than you think. But because you set that expectation and you made that tangible must do, you know, now you have put unnecessary pressure on yourself.
Eric: And arbitrary as well, right.
Kathleen: That’s right.
Eric: You know, why Tuesday? You know, you’ve just decided that.
Kathleen: That’s right and that’s how we’re conditioned. I mean, that’s the life that we live and that’s functioning in modern society, where we have benchmarks and goals and if we don’t achieve them, the promotion doesn’t come, the raise doesn’t come. So, it’s a very hard mold to break out of.
Eric: Absolutely. I would imagine that you probably have a really hard time having a job somewhere, like working at a regular place; I can see that being a challenge for you. Only because it is for me, so I could imagine it’s for you, you know.
Kathleen: Well, I really have gravitated to this self-employed lifestyle. And I mean, I’ve certainly work in a conventional setting over the medical university. It’s a very conventional setting, where I have to put things on a time sheet and I’m responsible for being there from this hour to this hour, things like that. And I’m fine with that kind of work environment, I don’t think I would do well in the cubicle forty hours a week. So, I’ve stayed away from that my whole life, it’s been very unconventional.
Eric: What kind of work do you do with the university?
Kathleen: Teach swimming.
Eric: Teach swimming, same… okay.
Kathleen: Yeah. You know, I take private clients and this is more in the traditional swimming. So, I’ll take a triathlete who just wants to refine a stroke and work with them on pure technique and then I coach a little kid’s team; there’s a youth club, that’s not serious swimming. We’re pretty much working on strokes and doing the beginning of interval training, things like that. But it’s fun and I enjoy it and the kids just make me howl with some of the things they say.
Eric: They are hilarious. So, what is the youngest age you would take for swim calm or recommend?
Kathleen: You know, probably at a teenager. You have to have the mind- set, a degree of maturity which you can understand and process the concepts that I’m trying to teach and then reinforce. So, it takes that sort of maturity. Some people have it you know, when they’re fourteen, fifteen, and others don’t get it until they’re thirty- five.
Eric: Right. Is there a particular hurdle that is you know, the hardest for people around that age that you’re looking for…is there one idea in particular?
Kathleen: No, no, no, it’s funny because I’ll find a different little snag with every student. Some student has a terrible time doing skill A and this student breeze through A, they get stuck on skill C, but the one who’s stuck on S, could do C with no problem. So, what I say is, each student is like a little present, I never know what I’m going to get, it comes wrapped up and I have to unwrap it and I have to take a peek and see what’s going on, see what that present might be and then work with it. So, every single one is different and that’s again, the beauty of this teaching and this course, is I get such a variety of people and it’s fun.
Eric: That is really cool. And what is the oldest person you’ve taught, do you know?
Kathleen: Probably about seventy- two, seventy- four maybe… yeah, early seventy’s.
Kathleen: And she did really well.
Eric: And what was her motivation, why did she want to do it?
Kathleen: Bucket list.
Eric: Bucket list, just to get it done?
Eric: I figured it was either that or maybe like an upcoming vacation and or you know, a [inaudible 00:38:03].
Kathleen: Yeah, there are a lot of bucket listers and I’m really glad, I’m glad they find me and I’m glad that they finally muster the courage to at least inquire; that’s one thing that I’ve seeing. I have a lot of students who say, well actually I found you six months ago or a year ago, but I was too afraid to even contact you.
Eric: How do most people find out about you?
Kathleen: You know, internet, basically social media. And then it’s starting to be a little bit of word of mouth.
Eric: That’s always a bonus, right. If someone refers you, that’s a good sign. So, I imagine it’s hard career for you. I mean, you actually admit that you were scared of the water at one point. There’s probably a little bit of embarrassment involved you know.
Kathleen: But that’s why it’s usually a friend on friend or family member to family member. One student, she took the course, did quite well; in a couple of instances actually, then they dragged their husbands in and make them take the course too. So, things like that [inaudible 00:39:03].
Eric: Yeah, a lot of people who are with somebody, who have a fear of the water also, you know, married to somebody with the fear of the water.
Kathleen: Yes, yes. And in not all cases is it this profound, hang your head in shame fear. A lot of people will come and say, you know what, I’m fine in the shallow water but I’m not going into deep stuff, goodness knows what’s down there. And then, usually we find out that they weren’t quite as secure as they were, even in the shallow or we go through the course and say “Yeah, I’ve taken all these swimming lessons but nobody ever taught me how to do this or that”. I teach them all that and then we head on down to the deep end.
And there’s nothing… I taking a student down there for the first time and just getting on the other side of the safety rope and saying, you know what, let’s just hang here for a minute, just [inaudible 00:39:53].
Kathleen: Hang it on the wall, okay you have no bottom under your feet, this is the first time in your life you’ve ever experienced that. We’re not going to go any further, tell me how your day went. And then all at once they say, you know what, I’m alive, I’m down here and I’m alive, this is pretty cool.
Eric: You know, I know a lot of people who are scared of open water, the ocean, you know; they’re okay in a pool, but you know the idea of the ocean and the depth of it and you know, things swimming underneath them really gives them a hard time.
Kathleen: And that I can understand, because there are a lot of really good pools swimmers who won’t go out on the ocean. So, that’s a whole different game, that’s a whole different psychology and that’s not necessarily… some of it’s attached to swimming ability, but some of it is attached to just the goings on of the ocean, it’s a completely different environment, it’s much, much, more uncontrolled.
Eric: Absolutely. You know, there is… well, not just the animals, but the whole think, it’s…
Kathleen: That’s… yeah.
Eric: It’s the whole ordeal, you know. Have you any [inaudible 00:40:55]?
Kathleen: I do tell them, you actually float better in the ocean.
Eric: You do, [inaudible 00:40:58].
Kathleen: That’s right.
Eric: Have you had any… speaking of animals in the ocean, have you had any close calls with any… you talked about, you know Shark Alley from Key west to Cuba. Have you had any run ins with anything besides sting rays?
Kathleen: I have… the only two things that I have never actually seen, are shark….for all I know, with the places that I’ve been, they’ve probably been within ten feet of me and I didn’t know it. But I have not actually seen a shark and I have not had the chance to swim with a whale.
Kathleen: And I’d love to with a whale. But everything else, yeah, I’ve running everything else out there.
Kathleen: They’re fine, they’re fine. I mean, we’re so much bigger, I mean you know, in a barracuda’s eyes, we are the predator.
Eric: Sure. You know, my mom used to do, not competitive but high in scuba diving, she did cave diving, she was in a group that would go and rescue bodies of people who had passed away in caves. And she was on a, I think it was snorkeling trip or maybe a diving trip one time. And the folks on the boat decided it was going to be a [inaudible 00:42:10] some in the water to attract cave divers while they were, you know, to entertain themselves while they were off [inaudible 00:42:15]. So, they come to go back to their boats the other day and there was just schools of Barracuda around the boat. So, they were like “I don’t think I’m going to get back over there anytime soon, this is… maybe they’ll have to come to me [inaudible 00:42:27] because there no way I’, going over there”.
Kathleen: Yeah. You know, when you’re out there in the open water though, as long as you use some degree of common sense, obviously don’t go swimming through a school of Barracuda.
Eric: Right, yeah.
Kathleen: You know, exercise common sense and you know, I always say to myself, I’m in their neighborhood, I’m the guest, so behave as a good guest would, don’t disrupt anything, don’t [inaudible 00:42:54] the water, don’t do silly things. Just swim, mind your own business and they’ll let you pass.
Eric: Of the marathons you’ve done, do you have a favorite?
Kathleen: Well, I have favorites in for example, the Strait of Gibraltar is an easy swim, and it’s only eleven, twelve miles over Europe to Africa. But it’s so much fun, because it’s such an iconic swim.
Eric: It’s probably kind of warm too, right?
Kathleen: Low seventyish. So, it’s on the warmer end, but you know, it’s not bathwater. And that was a great swim because I was able to conduct the whole swim in Spanish.
Eric: Oh, cool.
Kathleen: Which was fun. And my daughter went with me as my crew.
Kathleen: I used to speak much better than I do now, but at any rate. So, that was great. The English Channel, obviously is the English Channel and you can’t help but think of you know, [inaudible 00:43:53] that you’re swimming over as you’re swimming. And you know, the most brutal swim that I ever did, which it has a special place in my heart because I was beaten up so badly, was the Molokai channel, between Molokai and Oahu, otherwise known as Ka’iwi channel. And I was in the water just a few minutes shy of twenty one hours to complete that swim. And I was one mass of jellyfish stings, the water conditions out there, the water is so big and so rough and mean because there’s nothing breaking those waves from California to Japan. And being out there and riding up and down in those waves all day and watching my escort boat just tip and back and forth and back; I don’t know how they didn’t capsize.
And then I had a kayak next to me, the boat had to stay away from me because in that situation they can run you over very easily. So, the boat had to stay you know twenty, twenty- five yards off and then the kayak stayed much closer to me. But you know, tough, tough, conditions and that was a good day. And then you know, just being stung all day long and watching that volcano all day, never get any closer. And again, don’t take your head up, put your head in the water and stop being a [inaudible 00:45:06] dog and stop looking. But we swam all night, all day and then into the second bite before finished.
Eric: Wow. Is that a pretty standard time for that run?
Kathleen: There are no standard times in marathon swimming or it’s very loose because every swim has a different condition to it. It’s [inaudible 00:45:26] when conditions, tidal conditions all sorts of things. So, while you can say well the English Channel the standard swim takes twelve to sixteen hours; that’s a benchmark, but if you’re more than sixteen or you’re under twelve, it’s not necessarily that you’re a super good or a super bad swimmer, it’s what conditions were like that day. Your swimming speed certainly plays into it, but there are a lot of other factors that determine the day.
Eric: That makes sense and you’re never going to be able to recreate the same exact condition in an environment like that more than once for sure.
Kathleen: That’s right.
Eric: Plus and you said jellyfish and you know, even the variables that you can’t see, probably.
Kathleen: Yeah, that’s exactly right. But I’ll tell you, there have been times like Molokai, jellyfish just hugged me, and it was cheering me on. I think that’s what it was.
Eric: [Laughing]. Do they actually stick to you as you’re going?
Kathleen: On occasion and I have actually pulled tentacles off of me and that was one benefit of being a harpist and having calluses on my fingers. I could actually grab a jellyfish tentacle and pull it off and not get stung again, because the callous was so thick on my finger that it could withstand the jellyfish barbs.
Eric: So, I mean, you probably know better than most, how do you treat a jellyfish wound?
Kathleen: Oh, I don’t even bother, because what happens is you know, if I was stung in hour number eight and now it’s hour number eighteen when I finally get out, I can’t remember where I was stung or the stings have been so numerous, I can’t even remember. So, I just take a Benadryl and go to bed.
Eric: Got you and I mean, so they’re not there the next day bothering you?
Kathleen: Oh, they are, they all pop put eventually and it’s a miserable couple of days. It really is a miserable couple of days.
Eric: Got you. So, yeah that’s what I meant, I mean the next day, is there anything to do about it or I mean…?
Kathleen: It’s too late, all those little, those tiny, tiny, little stingers that have been embedded in the skin, they’ve done their work.
Eric: You just got to wait for it to push out?
Kathleen: Yeah, just wait for your body to take care of it.
Eric: Oh, that’s a bummer. Do you have any other… besides it hurting, which it does; is there any allergic reaction, is there nausea or…?
Kathleen: No. I’m very lucky that I do not have any allergic reaction to jellyfish stings. Some people do, but I’m really lucky I do not, it’s a pain and it’s literally a pain and then it itch, but I don’t react anymore negatively than that.
Eric: What, it itches a couple days?
Eric: I don’t think I’ve ever been stung by jellyfish, thankfully. Not something I want to start doing either, but…
Kathleen: Don’t, I don’t recommend it.
Eric: Yeah. [Laughing]. What is the right thing to do if you were on a beach and something stung you, do you know?
Kathleen: Well, what I have always done if it’s just a small sting and I’m swimming locally and I’m on my way home. I take some sort of kind of heavier tape… well, scotch tape, masking tape, you could probably use duct tape; and I apply it to this side of the sting and then pull the take off and then if you look you can see some of the stingers that you’ve been able to pull out of your skin. Well they’re no longer releasing that stinging agent, so they’ve been removed. And what it does, is it cuts down on the severity of the sting and the duration of the sting and then we have all these anecdotal things with [inaudible 00:48:44] tenderizer. You know, putting that on and supposedly some of the things in the tenderizer negate the sting. So, whether or not that helps or the tape thing does actually work because you’re removing the thing that’s actually causing the pain.
Eric: Right, the actual mechanical… yeah, that make sense. I’ve never heard that, that’s good advice, thank you. If I ever am lucky enough to get stung, I’ll find something…
Kathleen: Try not to, it’s really not worth it.
Eric: That is not on my bucket list that is not something that I want to be doing. So, how can folks find you if someone wants to get more information, where should they go?
Kathleen: My website is obviously swimcalm.com. As I said, we’re located in Charleston South Carolina and I’m about to put out the listing of fall and winter courses. We’ve been delayed because we had some pool issues going on with the city and the potential closure of one of our pools for several months, which we certainly don’t need but that’s out of my control.
Eric: So, swimcalm.com to get a schedule. How [inaudible 00:49:47] schedule, do they full up fast?
Kathleen: It depend. What I typically do, is I have two formats; I have a resident format and those are evening classes because most people work fairly conventional hours and what we’ll do is we’ll take two weeks, usually a Monday, Tuesday, Thursday in the evening and then a Saturday morning and then the next week repeat that schedule. So, that’s your eight sessions or your four sessions at two hours each session. So, that’s one way and that allows local residents here in Charleston to take the course and then I have more condensed settings where they can come in on a Tuesday and we run double sessions each day, they finish up on a Saturday morning, they can travel back home Saturday afternoon, have Sunday to sit back and absorb what just happened to them and go back to work on Monday.
Eric: Got you. So, if somebody wants to come from California to do this, that’s kind of the vacation method?
Kathleen: That’s right, that’s right. And in some cases, you know, especially if it’s a husband and wife or a couple of friends who want to come out, I will create a course for you. All I have to do, is just go talk to the pool manager, try to make sure that things are clear, she pencils me in and we go.
So, I’ve done that any number of times, somebody has contacted me and said I’m free in the October- November timeframe, what do you have available? And we create something.
Eric: And I’m guessing there’s no online version of this, right, it’s something that has to be done in person, you know, with somebody?
Kathleen: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely, there’s no virtual way to do this at all. But it’s worth it.
Eric: Yeah, I mean, if you have a life- long fear of swimming, you know, a four day trip to South Carolina doesn’t seem like a big deal.
Kathleen: So, that’s right. Well, I mean, and you’re going to Charleston. So, that’s one of the cool places, I mean, that’s the coolest place in South Carolina.
Eric: Is it? I am yet to go there, I drove through it but I’ve never actually hung out there.
Kathleen: It’s worth hanging out. I mean, the city itself is absolutely beautiful. We’re a foodie, I mean, you cannot get a bad meal in Charleston and just the amenities and the tourism possibilities. So, usually my students wind up packing a day or two on one or both ends, so they have their work, which of course is taking the course but they also have a little bit of down time to take a look at the city.
Eric: Yeah, I typically go places to eat. That’s really all I care about when I get there, is eating their food. So, if you say it’s a good town for eating that sounds like my cup of tea.
Kathleen: It’s a great town for eating, it is an awesome town for eating.
Eric: Are you from there, originally?
Kathleen: No, I’m from Pittsburgh.
Eric: From Pittsburgh, okay.
Kathleen: I grew up in the western Pennsylvania.
Eric: Nice. There was an N.D.P.A conference in Pittsburgh a couple years ago. I don’t know if you went to that, but…
Kathleen: I was in the midst of recovering from the second rotator cuff surgery, at that point, I couldn’t travel.
Eric: Yeah. It was at a hotel whose name… it’s just jumped out of my head. It’s a really famous, super cool place, maybe one of the coolest hotels I’ve ever been at.
Kathleen: Oh, it’s The William Penn?
Eric: Yeah, The William Penn. Awesome place.
Kathleen: Yes, yeah.
Eric: Super cool. You know, really old, we don’t have anything like that in Florida, so you know, really neat place.
Kathleen: Yeah, that’s the iconic all time hotel in Pittsburgh and it’s been renovated very lovingly and what a great asset.
Eric: It was and it was a neat place to have the conference that really gave it a different kind of setting. But anyways, so, swimcalm.com is the place to find you.
Kathleen: Yes, and I’m on Facebook as well.
Eric: And on Facebook. And you said that’s where most people find you, it seems like on social media?
Kathleen: Yes, that’s right.
Eric: And you know, it’s kind of nice to know that people can travel to you, right. Because I was thinking, if you’re outside of South Carolina you’re kind of out of luck, but you know, if someone is in New Jersey they can you know, hop on a plane and be there [inaudible 00:53:31].
Kathleen: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, that’s right.
Eric: Is it possible to split up, could you like, if I can’t take four days off work, could I do a weekend?
Kathleen: The two consecutive weekends, something like that?
Kathleen: Yes, yes it is possible. I haven’t done that, but there’s no reason not to and that’s where I differ from a lot of other courses. I like to try and work with the student because you know, people have adult lives. As a swim coach used to say, “Adult things happen to adults”. So, I can’t necessarily get away. The only downside, is our pools in the city are closed on Sundays. So, until we decide to join the twenty first century, I need to get things done you know, in that kind of format on a Friday, Friday- Saturday.
Eric: Got it. Well, thank you so much Kathleen, I really appreciate it. Is there anything else you want to let people know before we wrap up?
Kathleen: No, it’s been a pleasure, what an honor to finally meet you and have a chance to talk with you. But I would say you know, if you are an adult and have some fear of the water, be it shallow water, deep water, all water, then you know think about addressing that fear. What I will say is, we don’t teach people to manage fear, we go ahead and heal the fear, because if you had a chronic health condition, would you choose to manage that condition or would you choose to cure that condition if you have the chance?
Eric: Cure it of course.
Kathleen: Exactly. So, that’s what we do.
Eric: That’s awesome. Well, thank you so much, I really appreciate, I really enjoyed taking to you.
Kathleen: You’re welcome. Thank you.
Eric: And if there’s any you need, let me know and good luck. And maybe, if I come up to South Carolina to eat, I will let you know.
Kathleen: Oh, holler, I’ll come join you.
Eric: Perfect. Alright, thanks Kathleen. Have a good day everyone.