Sisters reunited in the water at Big Ten championships

Ryan Schuster

INDIANAPOLIS — The Big Ten Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships was a reunion of sorts for Gophers distance freestyler Kim Wilson. The junior from South Bend, Ind., wasn’t only competing in her home state in front of family. She was racing against them, too.
Her older sister, Kirstin, is a senior at Purdue and swims in distance freestyle events. The Wilson’s parents were present to watch both daughters compete.
The Indiana University Natatorium also holds a little bit of history for the Gophers’ Wilson. Two years ago at her first Big Tens, she broke the Minnesota school record in the 500-yard freestyle event twice during the first day of competition.
“I love being back in Indiana,” Wilson said. “It’s nice to swim in a pool where they have the Olympic trials.”
At Big Tens in 1995, Wilson set the school record first during the preliminaries then broke her own new record in the finals of the event behind Ohio State’s Joycelyn Jay in a time of 4 minutes, 49.27 seconds.
“I was shocked,” Wilson said of her school-record time in the preliminaries of the 500 freestyle. “It was really good for me to get my confidence up because it was the first event in the morning. I had worked really hard, but I didn’t think I was capable of that.”
This year she again finished behind Jay in the 500 freestyle, but defeated her sister in the same race. Kirstin, who competed with a minor shoulder injury, finished a distant 33rd out of 54 swimmers in the preliminaries. Kim won the 1,650 freestyle in convincing fashion. She beat Michigan’s Kerri Hale, who is the Big Ten record-holder in the event, by almost 10 seconds. She earned an automatic NCAA berth in the 1,650 freestyle and a consideration time in the 500 freestyle.
Kim’s teammate Olga Splichalova and Kirstin competed in the same preliminary heat in the 500 freestyle Thursday morning, and Kim was left standing on the Minnesota sideline, cheering for both her teammate and her sister.
“I want them (both) to do well,” Wilson said. “I have allegiance to everybody.”
That allegiance holds up even when the two compete against each other in the same event. Despite competing head-to-head, neither swimmer seems to care who finishes higher.
“I’m going to do the best I can for myself, and she’s going to do the best she can for herself,” Kim said. “It doesn’t matter who (wins), we’ll both be proud of ourselves for doing our best.”
Kirstin had similar sentiments. “We’re on different teams, but I follow her and she follows me,” she said of her sister. “I’m her biggest fan, and she’s my biggest fan.”
Even though there’s no rivalry, as soon as the race starts both are all business.
“They cheer for each other and they want the best for each other,” Cheryl Wilson, the swimmers’ mother said. “But, when they get in the pool that’s another swimmer in another lane. Once they come out of the pool, `that’s my sister.'”
Their parents appear to have adjusted just as well to having two daughters swimming for different Big Ten teams. They even went as far as having special sweatshirts made with both Minnesota and Purdue’s names on them, so they could support both of their daughters equally when the duo competed against each other.
“It’s really exciting for them,” Wilson said. “They feel very proud.”
This year, the Gophers and Boilermakers fans were assigned sections right next to each other, so Cheryl and Eugene, the girls’ father, were able to remain as neutral as possible.
Kim’s parents have had a tougher time deciding whether to root for Indiana, their alma mater, or their daughters’ teams. Cheryl discretely displayed her true colors by showing off the Indiana watch she wears on her left wrist.
The Wilson girls got into swimming at an early age. Kim’s parents had a cottage on a lake in Michigan when the girls were growing up, and made sure the two had swimming lessons. Kim and Kirstin excelled in the water and each started swimming competitively when they were only four years old. Over the years, they have developed at an almost identical pace.
Both swimmers formed a dominant pair at James Riley High School in South Bend, Ind., prompting their opponents to wonder if the two were clones, Kristin said. Since then, each have also tasted similar success in college.