By Michael Watkins
Lone Star Masters Swimmer Jackie Wilson has a new lease on life, something she credits swimming with helping.
While she was in Japan competing at the World Aquatics Masters Championships, Jackie Wilson of Lone Star Masters in Texas checked another milestone off her bucket list: climbing Mt. Fuji.
Considering less than three years ago she was seriously overweight, reliant on pain medication for a degenerative back issue, and chronically unhappy, being able to conquer another adventure and see nothing but future ahead of her is a massive win.
Her first step was the World Aquatics Masters Championships in August in Kyushu, a meet at which she set personal bests in the 50 freestyle and 50 backstroke and recorded top 10 finishes in the 100 (7th) and 200 (6th) backstroke.
As far as Wilson is concerned, the meet was another important step in her comeback to swimming and life.
“Upon qualifying for both Summer Nationals and Worlds, I made the decision to swim at Worlds because ‘I ain’t getting any younger,’ according to my family,” Wilson says. “In good health, I would take on a solo trip to Japan to see how well I could hold up against international competition and a nine-day travel meet
“The next several World Championships won’t be ideal or totally reasonable for a solo trip. I was able to arrange for time off (from work), and I was pretty well conditioned for this meet. My coaches/gym/chiropractor arranged a GoFundMe to help me get here.”
Wilson’s comeback began in 2021 when she started weightlifting to rebuild her spinal strength and structure. Her degenerative disc disease was exacerbated with weight gain post-injury (she tripped over her cat) and poor lifestyle choices.
“That was the worst of all the injuries as my spinal cord had to be repaired in 2016 and then a sneeze took out my c-spine (cervical, or upper, spine) in 2018,” says Wilson, who started swimming as a 5-year-old and competed for the University of Houston for part of her freshman year before an injury to her back forced her to stop.
Weighing just under 300 pounds and dependent on pain medication just to make it through the day, she made the decision and commitment to positively change her life.
She began swimming four times a week and lifting three times a week to see how well her body could handle the stress.
“I went from one good day a month to one pain day every six to eight weeks,” she says. “Getting off the medication was the biggest factor for weight loss.
“The pain pills and nerve medications were prohibitive to any sort of productive lifestyle and weight loss. I am not currently on any medications.”
She says weight training helped the nerve pain as well, as she became strong enough to support her own spine, which was vital to gaining her mobility back. In the process, she lost more than 100 pounds.
“Swimming took my conditioning a step further,” Wilson says. “I was not only able to support my own strength but also improve my cardiovascular health, mental health, and rate of recovery.
“My weightlifting coach and family knew I wanted a challenge and pushed me to get back in the water. I think my mom’s exact words were, ‘You need to stare at the black line again.’ The rest of the family agreed that it would be a positive outlet for me to compete in something, and it also would be beneficial health wise.”
Last year, she swam three events at the 2022 USMS Spring National Championship in San Antonio, and since that meet, she has dropped time in at least one event every meet.
Now 36, she is swimming faster than she did as an 18-year-old age group swimmer.
But for Wilson, regardless of what the clock says when she’s in the water, her real victory has been reclaiming her life and choosing to find healthy ways to thrive.
“To be able to compete again challenges me mentally and physically in ways I was not sure I would get back,” she says. “When I lost swimming, I turned to work and academia for challenge, but the grind of a hard set and pushing myself to the max (200 backstroke) is a different kind of determination.
“Knowing I can swim in the same heat at Masters World Championships, after thinking I would only ever be a spectator, has been profound for rebuilding my health.”
And after more than two years of rebuilding herself and her spine, Wilson decided the best way to come home from Japan is with two top 10 finishes—and a trip to the top of a mountain.
“It (climbing Mt. Fuji) is definitely a bucket list item, but it’s a new bucket list, items that I never thought I would be able to do,” she says. “My family and I have been calling this my ‘second chance at life’ trip.
“At age 30, I was so unhealthy I thought I wasn’t going to make it to 40 without full spinal reconstruction and that eventually I would become disabled. At 36, I refuse to let it happen. I wanted to start my life over … and what better way to come from the hell I lived through than to compete at Worlds and climb a mountain to meet the sunrise and start again.”