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Open Water

Kathleen Wilson swims around Charleston, S.C. Photo: Gary McElveen

Kathleen Wilson has long since moved beyond the anxiety involved with swimming open water. The professional harpist and Charleston, S.C., city councilwoman has completed most of the big swims around the world, swimming the English Channel, the Strait of Gibraltar, and a circumnavigation of the island of Manhattan.

“The English Channel stands out,” Wilson says. Only a thousand swimmers have made it across the 21-mile channel that separates England from France, which is considered the Mount Everest of open water swimming, but many more have tried unsuccessfully. “That’s the granddaddy of all swims. It’s a tough way to spend a day. It was a terrible fight for me getting into France. I always wondered why so many swimmers failed in the last mile or two. I wondered why they couldn’t dig a little deeper with so little to go, but I know now. There are terrible tides that run parallel to the coast of France. They’ll take you miles off your course. I was in the middle of one of those tides running north. I was just 800 meters from France, 11 or 12 minutes from being finished and I got swept north a good distance, and the coast fell away. So then I was 1,500 meters from land. I was only making an inch or two of progress with each stroke. That 11 minutes turned into almost two hours of basically swimming in place.”

Last fall, Wilson became the first person to swim 16 miles around the Charleston peninsula. “The older I get, the more I’m attracted to long distance open water swims,” she says. “The pool is too confining. I like being away from the land. I like the expansiveness of the ocean. I’ve come to terms with all of the typical fears that keep most people out of the water. I take safety precautions, but I don’t obsess about what’s out there.”

Web Exclusive: Watch a documentary of Wilson’s Charleston swim.

If anything, Wilson thrives in the situations that would worry the rest of us. The first hour of her Charleston swim was completely in the dark, which Wilson says is her favorite way to swim. “It’s peaceful and relaxing. I can set a good pace, get into a groove and watch the sun come up.”

Wilson had three kayaks paddling with her during the seven-hour, 16-mile swim, which took her in and out of busy shipping channels around the bustling city of Charleston. The last stretch involved swimming up the Ashley River during a stiff head wind.

“You can train and you can have a plan, but Mother Nature dictates the pace,” Wilson says. “You have to accept that. After you accept the situation for what it is, it’s just a question of how badly you want to finish.”

Organized open water swims are attracting more swimmers looking to finish marathon distances, and new races sprout up every year. One of the region’s largest races, the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim, saw 600 participants swim 4.4 miles across the bay last year. Karah Nazor Friberg held the inaugural 10-mile Swim the Suck outside of Chattanooga last year, which drew swimmers from as far as Canada.

“People typically get into open water swims through triathlons,” Friberg says. “They do okay during the swim leg of their races, then start looking for longer distances.”

Watch video of what it’s like to Swim the Suck.

Denis Crean is as responsible for the growth in open water swimming in our region as anyone. He founded the U.S. Open Water Swimming Connection, an organization that provides the community with information about swims and a platform to help keep great swimming destinations clean, and is producing three new open water races in D.C.’s National Harbor this year. He’s also created a weekly “happy hour swim” in the harbor. His efforts have helped turn D.C. into a booming swimmer’s town.

“More clubs are starting to use the harbor as their group swim destination, so you’ve got this real social scene going on in and out of the water there,” Crean says. The National Harbor, which is surrounded by restaurants and hotels, is a scenic, clean swimming destination that Crean uses to introduce to more swimmers with his three new races. His first race, the Seaport Swim, has distances from 0.4 miles to two miles, and has already attracted 200 participants.

But as more triathletes looking to push their personal boundaries sign up for long-distance swims, veteran open water swimmers become more worried about the safety of their races.

“The sport is getting more popular, but with that comes a decrease in the quality of swimmer participating in these events,” says Kathleen Wilson, who insists that triathletes typically aren’t strong enough swimmers to tackle distances over a few miles. This year, she’s staging the Swim Around Charleston, a 10-mile point-to-point swim that covers a portion of her own route around the peninsula. “As a race director, you really have to monitor who’s entering your race. There’s no putting your feet down out there. Inexperienced swimmers may not even realize they’re in trouble.”

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