Kathleen Wilson

Expand your skill set at every possible opportunity, even if not related to your business.


Kathleen Wilson is founder and owner of SwimCalm, an innovative program that teaches adults with fear of water how to swim. This life altering program combines the mental and physical, proving to the student that the water is a friendly medium and it is well within their capacity to learn 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.

When not teaching a SwimCalm class, Kathleen Wilson is an internationally known and highly experienced marathon swimmer with a world class resume of swims. She teaches and coaches aquatics at the Medical University of South Carolina’s Student Wellness center. She is the creator and race director for the annual Swim Around Charleston, a 12 mile open water swim event held in early fall each year and several swims registered in the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame as firsts. Kathleen was enshrined into the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame in May, 2018.

When not in the water, Kathleen is a conservatory-trained professional harpist, holding a Bachelor of Music and Master of Music and has been principal harpist with the Charleston Symphony since 1987. She also holds an adjunct teaching positions at both the College of Charleston and Charleston Southern University while maintaining a busy schedule of providing music for special events.
She also served the city of Charleston as a three term council member for the city of Charleston, representing District 12 and acting as Mayor Pro Tempore in 2008.

She is a recipient of the Order of the Palmetto, the highest honor a citizen of South Carolina may receive and is a 2010 Liberty Fellow.

Where did the idea for SwimCalm come from?

SwimCalm is a carefully designed method of teaching adults with fear of water and more importantly, are ready to deal with the fear and heal it. SwimCalm takes its name from the nature of the class; swimming; as well as the nature of the swimming; calm. Nothing is rushed and nothing is out of control, students slowly unwind and learn everything that traditional lessons fail to teach. I often say that I give them the 1000 bits of information that were never shared in a traditional adult swim program. I had some training previously with adult lessons and after using that method, saw its flaws and made it my own with changes and revisions for the better, eliminating unneeded gibberish and reducing the price so a regular person could afford it. I made it fit a public pool schedule and most of all, expanded the curriculum by allowing the student to go as far as possible in one complete class rather than cutting them off and telling them to come back for an additional class and fee. Adults are a different species. Adults bring baggage. They rationalize much more and due to a lifetime of experience, they bring pre-conceived ideas of what swimming is or is not.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

SwimCalm classes are growing and typically, my day involves answering students’ inquiries, contacting pool managers to gauge availability for upcoming classes and looking at the weather if in the midst of a class while thinking through fall back plans to ensure that students receive the full benefits of the course. It is still part time so I have additional obligations as well. We are located in Charleston, SC, itself a port city with water everywhere. Our region is growing rapidly and there is a growing need for a quality adult aquatics programming that addresses their issues, especially fear of water.

How do you bring ideas to life?

We bring the concept of erasing fear to life and make gains in the first session of the class. Students come in for the first class nervous, if not flat-out scared and many are doubtful that this program will be anything new or different from the past failures experienced in other classes. All want to conquer this very real fear of water and the stories they tell are frightening, sad and full of unnecessary trauma caused by bad instructors or well-meaning relatives who had nothing good to say about water or swimming. Sometimes, the student was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. We found that one bad instructor or one ocean undertow can cause a lifetime of fear and anxiety towards the water. There is no greater feeling than having a student achieve more in the first session than cumulatively over a lifetime. Most importantly, they achieve it on their own terms and with me as a facilitator and not a teacher mandating a strict curriculum and deadlines that must be met.

What’s one trend that excites you?

There is much more willingness to adopt alternate methods of learning traditional skills in many areas of life. This certainly applies to swimming. We are also coming to terms with the fact that students have differing needs and by placing fearful students in a traditional adult swim class, we are in fact, leaving them behind and marginalizing them. I have often said that at SwimCalm, we don’t serve the under-served, we serve those who have never been served. These students are usually embarrassed at having fear and the skills found in a typical beginner class are already too advanced with no room for error or practice. Fearful students need a different approach to water and that is why our work is so wonderfully gratifying. We absolutely change lives for the better. What could be a better outcome?

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I come from a competitive swimming background and still compete. I bring the self-discipline and endurance of my sport of marathon swimming to SwimCalm but yet staying attentive is perhaps the most important habit. Students need my full attention and I make certain that I remain engaged with no distraction when talking with a prospective student over the phone or especially during a class. Our students are in an unfamiliar and scary setting, the water. They have had bad experiences and can become panicked in an instant. I’m a “first responder” for a little while so I am always watching body language and talking with them. I assess fatigue levels, facial expressions and I watch anyone around us, ready to place myself between a student and someone being careless who has ventured into our space.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Always establish self-discipline and a strong work ethic but if in a service business, like SwimCalm, remember that students come to you with a need and a vulnerability. Develop the right attitude and never look down on someone asking for your help. The roles WILL be reversed some day in some circumstance.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

Swimming is more than the ability to thrash forward for a period of time or a certain distance. Most every instructor will claim that they teach fearful students because the student can thrash around in shallow water. They’re moving, they can swim! No, not at all! If your student cannot or will not enter water over his/her head with no anxiety, you have not taught that student to swim. Sadly, many drownings occur with safety a few feet away or air one second away or a couple of inches away yet these are the same students who thought they could swim because they thrashed forward in shallow water. Traditional instruction is so focused on movement in the water that basic skills and details are overlooked. There is something wonderful about being still in the water, in any depth and being absolutely fine with it. It’s essential. That is true swimming and feeling comfortable in the water, whether 3 feet, 13, 30 or 300 feet deep. It’s the same stuff.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Expand your skill set at every possible opportunity, even if not related to your business. I come from training and education as a classical musician, having spent over 30 years playing in symphony orchestras as a harpist. I still do that work but my skills have evolved tremendously through my love and knowledge of the water. I was also fortunate enough to spend 12 years as an elected councilmember for the city of Charleston and gained unbelievable knowledge and skills. All have helped me grow as a person and as an entrepreneur.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

It’s very tough in this particular business. I explain to prospective students how this course is different. When dealing with fear, they can learn to manage it or cure it. If they had a chronic disease, would they opt for a management strategy or a cure? I have class payment policies but I also see students fearful of losing more money on another bad swim class. I ask for payment to hold their place in a class but it is fully refundable if they decide that the class is not for them after the first session. It is the first sign of trust- I’m serious about running a business but I’m not taking your money until you experience your own potential. To date, no one has ever asked me for a refund of that class fee or failed to pay the full class fee. I also listen to students’ comments and adjust as needed.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

I did a Women’s show, a three day format that should have been a rousing success and opportunity to connect with students. It was not done to a high standard, attendance was dismal and it was a complete loss of my time and money.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Find something you wish to do, find those already doing it and find the gap in their programming or knowledge. Create a partnership or even an awareness in which your business fills that gap yet does not infringe on what the other business has created so the threat level is decreased. I will certainly work with a traditional adult swim student if requested but I do not seek them out, thus creating a level of trust with traditional instructors. They, in return, identify a fearful student and refer SwimCalm. Then it becomes my job to encourage a sign up.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

I go to great lengths to ensure that my students are comfortable. It is not possible to dictate water temperature to a pool manager because there are many competing interests. I invested in some wetsuit jackets for my students so if they are chilly or cold, it is means of keeping them tuned in and happier. There is nothing worse than a student who is wants to be there but is miserable because he or she is cold and cannot overcome it. Everyone loses. There is no additional charge, it is part of my running a caring business.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive? How do you use it?

Because SwimCalm is still small yet growing, we rely on social media for the bulk of our marketing. Facebook has been useful. Traditional word of mouth still works as does traditional print media. Sometimes we neglect the obvious and time tested old fashioned methods in favor of more current platforms.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

I just finished Undaunted Courage, the Opening of the American West by Stephen Ambrose. It was written about 20 years ago and details the journey of Lewis and Clark. I enjoy history tremendously and this book, with no obvious connection to business, gives me a clear look at how extraordinarily lucky I am to have such luxury at my disposal in our current times. It gives inconvenience and business challenges a new perspective when reading and thinking about the accounts of daily survival and the enormity of the journey undertaken. Our 21st century perceptions of strength and determination are far different from these ordinary men, specialists in their trades, who became extraordinary, embarking on one of the greatest expeditions in history.

What is your favorite quote?

Given to me from a good friend, an ex-USMC Force Reconnaissance team member and multi-title world champion fighter- the body doesn’t know unless the mind tells it. He was speaking from an athletic and Special Forces perspective but in the realm of a fearful adult learning to swim, the potential is there, the body is able and willing but the brain needs convincing. I help them to change all of that. We need not be Special Forces or a world champion to make substantive changes to our lives. By the way, this friend has watched and assisted with several SwimCalm classes as a huge asset and cheerleader.

Key learnings:

  • Expand your skill set at every opportunity whether applicable to your business or not.
  • Look for a niche within a niche when dealing in an existing market.
  • Remember that we all need services from each other and place yourself in your customer’s shoes.
  • Listen to customers and allow them to improve your product.


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