A Life on the Lake
Cindy Present reflects on a Lake Austin childhood, her work with Lake Austin Spa Resort and the importance of spending time in and near the water
by Avery Tanner and Margaret Williams
Water is in Cindy Present’s blood. The Austin native was practically raised on the lake – she even used to be a competitive water skier. In fact, her parents were some of the first Austinites to live year-round on Lake Austin when, in the ‘50s, they moved to the land Present still calls home. She now works as the Director of Fitness and Activities at Lake Austin Spa Resort and is always looking for ways to incorporate the water into her friends’ and clients’ lives.
Present always knew the many benefits of being in and around water but it wasn’t until her close friend Kristin McLain passed away, while working as a STAR Flight Nurse that Present spent time reflecting on just how healing water can be. From the devastating loss of a friend, Foundation 1023 (named for McClain’s EMS badge number) was born. The nonprofit offers mental wellness services for first responders, with many of the services involving water therapy.
We spoke to Present about the power of water in her work and life, and how she is using it to help others.
Margaret Williams: Can you tell me about growing up here on the lake and a little history of the property.
Cindy Present: I was born and raised on Lake Austin. My dad was originally from Ohio and knew he wanted to go to the University of Texas and make Austin his home. He used to hitchhike back and forth from Ohio to UT! He was a water guy, too. In ‘56, right after a big flood, he and my mom found a little house on this northern stretch of Lake Austin. At the time there was Austin Lodges [the same land that Lake Austin Spa Resort now occupies] and a few houses down a dirt road, and that’s all that was on this peninsula. A friend of Mom and Dad’s owned Austin Lodges and they oversaw it and ran the 10 hotel rooms. Our whole life was based out here.
MW: As an adult, how did you end up living back on the property?
CP: In the ’60s when my grandpa retired, he moved down from Ohio to join our family and my dad sold him half of the acreage. Then when my grandfather passed away in 2001, my husband and I purchased the land. Everything still had the same ranch style sixtiess feel. We did a little bit of a remodel but a lot is still the same. We love it.
MW: How did your career get started?
CP: Right after graduating from The University of Texas with a degree in health promotion and journalism, I started working at Austin Resort (now Lake Austin Spa Resort) in sales and marketing, which was awesome because I could promote what I loved. I was there for 11 years. Then I left so my husband Steve and I could start Texas Ski Ranch in New Braunfels. We both love water skiing and that’s actually how we met! But we were commuting and I really missed being in one spot.
I went back to Lake Austin Spa Resort, which by then had become what it is today. I started doing fitness and then two and a half years ago they asked me to help evolve the program and now I’m the fitness and activities director.
MW: How did you do that?
CP: I knew it all had to be based on the water, which is something so unique to us. I am always thinking about what we can do on the water that our guests don’t have the opportunity to do elsewhere. What do we normally do on land that we can creatively take to the water? Yoga and balance are great examples. We have this system, called the “Lake Lotus” that anchors paddle boards so you can be stable but also on the water practicing balance and paddle boarding basics.
MW: What does your day-to-day look like? Do you actually “commute” to work via paddle board?
CP: Yes! It creates intentional space in my day. Would it be easier to jump in a car and zoom to work? Probably. But if I got in the car I’d be thinking about the music, what text just came through, the A/C … all of this stuff that distracts the mind. Going out on the water pushes a pause button.
MW: About how long is that time for you?
CP: Around 15 minutes. Not a ton of time, but just enough.
MW: Tell me about the start of Foundation 1023.
CP: Throughout our careers, Steve and I have always taken people to the water. In our younger years it was for fun and play, and then we started taking people to the water who were going through a hard time. Organically, we were using water, through the years, as a form of healing.
When Kristen was killed, we really did a lot of reflection and soul searching. We had a ton of first responders who were coming to us saying there was nothing, therapy wise, for them. We worked through all that, took inspiration from Flatwater Foundation, and created Foundation 1023.
MW: Can you tell me more about how Kristin inspired the foundation?
CP: I knew that water was a healing component for her, but we never talked about it. When she’d come off a shift, I’d say, “Hey, how was your night?” and she was like, “Ugh,” or “It was okay.” I thought I’m not going to ask about it because you don’t want your friend to have to relive the scary or hard parts. But in hindsight, that probably wasn’t the best thing. We all need to talk more openly about mental health.
People feel like it’s a weakness. Well, the new strength will be talking about mental illness because once we do, it empowers others to take charge of their own mental health..
MW: And water plays a role in that?
CP: Yes, getting people near water helps open up that conversation. How can you center yourself and use things that are natural in your environment to help support mental health?
MW: Do you think many people who are new to Austin are even aware that all this water is out here?
CP: It’s amazing how many people I hear from Austin say they go to Mozart’s or Hula Hut and that’s all they know of Lake Austin. When people coming to the resort and spa get on the water taxi they can’t believe it. The ride out totally shifts their thinking. They arrive to this end, where much of the land is a preserve, and it’s just such a different feel. Like, where am I? Is this an island? It might as well be, you’ll never know the difference.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.