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Incurable collector of heavy things. Photo Credit: Geoff Story

Kirsten O'Loughlin

During the summer months, tourists from all over the world flock to Kinsale, a quaint fishing village on the Irish southern coast. They yacht, dine, and wander around the centuries-old ruins of castles overlooking the choppy waves.

Standing above the water on a day with as much heat an Irish summer can manage, no sane person would see the slate gray currents as anything other than menacing. By this measure, Kirsten O’Loughlin, Paradowski’s Interactive Creative Director, would not qualify as sane. 

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Somewhere in the Irish Sea. Photo Credit: Adrien Clidière.

T. S. Eliot would have you believe April the cruellest month, but he never swam two miles in 56 degree water around Sandy Cove Island on a brutish autumn day. Kirsten has. Even as an experienced open water swimmer, she now recognizes it was nakedly dangerous. 

“The Irish,” she says, smirking, “have no respect for safety.”

There were no support boats. There was no safety net. There was only the churning dark wake and the certainty that if she stopped, she would drown.

Kirsten writes off her endeavors into open-water athletics as a garden variety addiction to adrenaline, but this barely begins to explain it. There are far easier ways to get the blood pumping. For instance, bungee jumping does not require months of preparation and endless hours in a pool. Skydiving doesn’t require overcoming extended periods of untold mental anguish. These events are more than a test of strength. At a certain point during training, the body is capable of physically completing the swim. Training the mind is something different.

Endurance athletics has become a catchall term to describe everything from dadbods stuffed in lycra riding bicycles to 5k fun runs. It’s a far cry from what endurance means to Kirsten. Voluntarily swallowing cold seawater with every stroke in desperate hope to see the shoreline is a world apart from the goals of a typical weekend warrior.

“Once you’re in the water, it’s meditative,” she explains. “You’re not mindlessly counting laps. You’re reacting to changing conditions. Your stroke pattern becomes different. You adapt.”

The ability to read changing conditions and adapt behavior isn’t limited to Kirsten’s swimming. Her junior year at the University of Maryland, Kirsten, majoring in science, was struggling in her physics and chemistry classes. The poor performance was out of character. 

Despite some wild behavior as a rebellious high schooler, excellent grades had come easy for Kirsten. But after three years, science broke her.

“Fuck this,” she said. “I’m going to be an art major.”

In some ways, it’s not difficult to imagine Kirsten as a scientist. Her work is meticulously organized. She has a researcher’s focused intensity and a surgeon’s expert confidence. However, it is hard to picture Willie Nelson, her soulful and ever-present smoke-gray pitbull, roaming a laboratory at Kirsten’s heels.

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Willie Nelson. Pitbull of the Wild Frontier.

While conventional wisdom insists art degrees don’t equate to employability, Kirsten found her skillset in high demand. Graduating during the dot com heydey, she quickly found work designing websites. 

“Nobody knew what to do with us or what to call us,” she remembers. “First we were considered web designers. Then the jargon started to fragment out to User Experience Designers or maybe User Interface Designers. Then at some point, we decided we wanted to be called Internet Architects. But really, when smartphones came along, we needed to redefine what our role was. We needed a name to help other people understand the significance of what were were doing.” 

In this fast changing environment, expertise is only as good as your ability to keep pace with dynamic technologies. Despite the industry’s velocity, there is a core element of successful design that remains the same.

“The tools are going to just change so fast all the time,” Kirsten says. “There's a point when you have to ask yourself how are you going to spend your time? Are you going to spend your time with the learning curve and a new tool? Or are you going to spend your time thinking creatively about the actual experience a user will have?”

Kirsten, with her knowledge of typography and hierarchy, is not unlike a classically trained pianist moonlighting in a flashy rock band. Her competency with foundational disciplines allow her to design fluently, no matter the latest gadget. In fact, the gadgets she prefers were cutting-edge around the turn of last century. While she appreciates the clinical elegance of sitemaps and wireframes, she fills her printing shop with hulking, tank-like equipment. Movable type, she says, makes you part of the work. For Kirsten, it’s not good enough to be unafraid to get dirty. You have to try to get dirty. 

When Kirsten moved from Portland, Oregon to St. Louis in the early 2000s, she was no longer a short drive from open water. In keeping with her pathological need to put her body in harm’s way (and maybe to make some friends), she joined The Arch Rival Roller Girls, a prestigious and infamous roller derby team. A formidable competitor who is so tough that she laughs telling the story of swimming through (and swallowing) a swarm of jellyfish, Kirsten quickly found a community of kindred spirits. 

If her passion for adventure swimming represents the Zen warrior part of her personality, then roller derby is the bare knuckle boxer flipside of the same coin. It was only after captaining the team for six years and separating her shoulder a few times that Kirsten begrudgingly hung up her skates. 

“It's very hard to replace it with anything. When you’re doing it, it’s a big part of your identity. I stopped three years ago and I haven't really been able to fill that hole.“It's weird,” Kirsten reflects.

“It’s almost like you get used to having the shit beat out of you. And then you come to enjoy it.”

It’s ironic that Kirsten’s chosen hobbies are so destructive while her profession is so creative. For her, they’re not at odds at all. It’s a kind of therapy. 

“I think that's why I swam so much. Since leaving the derby community, I’ve had to really ask myself what I'm supposed to be doing right now with all this energy. Where to put that energy and how to find balance.”

Balance. An outlet. Release. Relief. Knowing how to defuse your own personal stress valve is paramount for a role that requires empathy as a primary skill. Landlocked and having sworn off roller derby, she’s looking for a new way to find her center, though she doesn’t appear too worried.

Kirsten, perhaps better than anyone, knows the best way to keep from drowning is to just keep swimming.