Water runs under it

Published in Wisconsin Week, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Dec. 8, 1999, written by Jeff Iseminger

You can say this with certainty about the career of Kim Santiago: Water has run through it. Or under it, actually, in the form of Madison’s Lake Mendota and Boston’s Charles River and Prince William Sound near the Gulf of Alaska.

And now she’s come full circle, waterwise, working for the past year as director of international relations with the Wisconsin Alumni Association. She’s a globe-circling networker who helped organize this year’s international alumni convocation on campus and recently has been planning a UW-Madison alumni conference in Southeast Asia.

“I like my job because of all the interesting people, both on- and off-campus, who come with it,” says Santiago, who lists UW-Madison crew coxswain, U.S. Olympian and even cheese-state beauty queen among her past accomplishments.

Her WAA home base is just a hop, skip and a splash from Lake Mendota, where her fluid career all began…

Let’s say you were sittin’ on the dock of the bay near the UW-Madison crew house in fall 1980. On many afternoons you would have seen quite a sight: Santiago, a freshman that year, rushing down to the dock in a dress after a late class, kicking off her high heels and jumping into a women’s crew boat as its coxswain.

Why heels and a dress in 1980? “It was partly because of the beauty queen thing,” she says.

The what thing? “As a UW-Madison freshman I was named Miss Monroe – Cheese Queen, as my friends called me – and competed in the Miss Wisconsin pageant,” she says. She previously had finished second in the Miss Philippine American pageant in Chicago.

Santiago came to make the leap from dock to boat because “a friend had told me about coxing and said I wouldn’t have to do much, just sit in the boat.”

Well, sitting is but a prelude to coxing. Santiago would have a hand on the rudder as she barked out the cadence to her rowers with a stopwatch strapped to her leg – a human metronome.

She had to steer between the Scylla and Charybdis of too slow and too fast. Too slow, and her boat could get burned by quicker-rowing crews. Too fast, and her rowers could get burned out.

By her sophomore year, Santiago traded in her dress for jeans and her heels for Timberland boots. Then – and here’s the slippery slope that boots and jeans can lead to – she got wanderlust. After two years at UW-Madison, she spent time in Alaska, working in a cannery and spending a summer working on a salmon seiner.

“I learned so much on that boat,” she says. “Before, I had assumed that the only worthwhile knowledge came from books. But from our captain I learned to read water, to read weather, to find fish. I came to value all sorts of knowledge.”

Santiago returned to UW-Madison to earn her bachelor’s degree in international relations and cox for the Badgers. She then trained with the U.S. national team on the Charles River in Boston from 1985 to 1988, working part time at Harvard University.

She got so good that she was one of two coxswains picked to compete for the U.S. women’s team at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. Santiago’s four-rower boat finished fifth in the finals.

“The Olympics was a phenomenal experience, especially the opening ceremony,” she says. “I also got to meet other crew competitors in the athletes’ village, people we never had time to get to know after other races during the year.”

She plunged back into training with the national team from 1990 to 1992, again in Boston. But she ended up as an alternate cox in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics; by then Olympic officials had turned the four-rower race into a coxless event.

Santiago paid a price for those meager-income years of Boston training: a mountain of debt. So in 1994 she decided to teach English in Japan, figuring six months of teaching would reduce that mountain to a molehill. She was such a yen-pincher that she rode her one-speed bicycle four hours round-trip between her home in Chiba and Tokyo to save the $6 train fare.

She soon erased her debt but stayed four years. Japan, in a way, was a “Roots” kind of experience for Santiago. “Growing up in Monroe, I rejected anything about my Asian heritage [her father was a Filipino physician] because it made me different,” she says. “But after living in Japan, I’m more interested in Asian culture.”

Speaking of Asia, she recently returned from it. Representing WAA, Santiago visited Thailand and the Thai alumni club to begin planning an alumni conference to be held in Bangkok Nov. 16-19 next year. Yet another WAA conference, this one in Europe, might be scheduled for 2001.

The Asian and European meetings are follow-ups to the successful International Alumni Convocation held last May at UW-Madison as part of the university’s sesquicentennial. She hopes those conferences will help spark the formation of new WAA chapters worldwide, adding to the eight already active.

For Santiago, who also is WAA liaison to California alumni clubs, technology has been a boon in linking international alumni – and a bit of a bane.

It’s as easy for someone in Tokyo with Internet access to fire off an e-mail to Santiago as it is for a WAA colleague down the hall. And that’s good. But when she returns from distant points, she faces a tsunami of e-mail awaiting reply.

Whether by e-mail or face-to-face, Santiago has something important to say: “I’m bringing a message to international alumni – that they are important to WAA and their alma mater.”

And what she flies over, as she circles the world to deliver that message, flows into the aqueous theme of her life: a beautiful globe of water.