Water Sports

Leah Stilwell, a Hopewell High grad, found life in water sports

Leah Stilwell

Leah Stilwell

Submitted photo

“Find a penny, pick it up, all day long you’ll have good luck.”

Leah Stilwell was 6 years old when the saying spoke to her heart.

She was in the grocery store with her mom, lagging behind because she kept bending over.

“I was encouraging her to come on, when I asked her what she was doing,” mom Sue Stilwell told The Charlotte Observer. “She replied that she was putting pennies down so someone would find it and have good luck. This act of kindness spoke volumes to me. In her 6-year-old mind, she was giving her own money to make a stranger’s day lucky.”

Unless you were in Leah’s large circle of friends that spanned continents, you didn’t realize what a treasure the Hopewell High School graduate was to Mecklenburg County. She held four Guinness Book of World Records marks in the water sport hydrofoiling, was a former world champion and United States Hydrofoil Association Female Athlete of the Year in 2019.

“It’s not something a lot of people in Charlotte knew,” said Charlotte resident Niki Turner, one of Leah’s good friends and a world champion in stand-up jet skiing. “Water sports are smaller sports. She was great. But what she was incredibly good at doing was being there for everybody. She never judged.”

Stilwell died Sept. 24. She was 30 years old. A celebration of life will be held Nov. 12 at Pleasant Grove Farms in Charlotte.

“She was always a go-getter and made a lot of opportunities happen for a lot of people,” Turner said. “She packed so much into those 30 years.”

Home on Mountain Island Lake

Stilwell was born Nov. 10, 1991, in Kailua, Hawaii. After the family moved to Charlotte, she attended and graduated from the University of North Carolina Wilmington with a chemistry degree in 2014. She worked in pharmaceutical manufacturing as senior director of business development for Asymchem.

She was happiest, though, when she was on a lake, playing rugby or any kind of sport.

“We met through mutual friends — and that was one of the things that was so impressive about her. It was so awesome to meet a chick that was big into contact sports,” said Mike Mead, her partner of two years. “It was amazing how athletic she was.”

Stilwell lived on Mountain Island Lake and mastered anything pulled behind a boat from slalom and barefoot water skiing to wakeboarding, wake surfing and hydrofoiling, according to her obituary.

The water sport she thrived in the most was sit-down hydrofoiling. She foiled across America and around the world. The board used in the sport is a surfboard with a foil attached at the bottom of its surface, which acts as a lifting force. The design of the hydrofoil board makes it so it can leave the surface of the water at various speeds.

Mead said Stilwell started a women’s rugby club, recruited players and fundraised while attending college in Wilmington. Later when she was living in California, Stilwell joined the World Rugby Sevens Series.

“She definitely had a lot of different sides to her,” Turner said. “She was also a phenomenal businesswoman. She was a well-rounded woman and because of that she met all different types of people. She could socialize with all of them. She loved to learn.”

She was vibrant, positive and welcoming

“At work she led a team of people and listening to her talk to her team — there’s no negativity,” Mead said. “If there was an issue, she would approach it in a positive manner to make sure not to cut anyone down. She just had a way about her.”

And at home, there was never a dull moment.

“She was always the life of the party,” Mead said. “She was always funny.”

‘She wanted to keep them all’

More than lake life and sports, Stilwell loved animals. She started a pet-sitting business when she was 12. She called it “LES (Leah Elizabeth Stilwell) Pet Sitting.

“She offered the regular services, but would spend at least 30 minutes of ‘love time’ with her clients so they wouldn’t miss their families so much,” Sue Stilwell said. “She opened her savings account with $1,000 of her earnings.”

Throughout the years, she had cats, dogs, a 7-foot iguana, full-grown pig and birds. She belonged to a foster group in Lincoln County where she fostered pit bull breeds.

“She was an animal person,” Mead said. “We were foster dog parents, but she wanted to keep them all. I had two dogs, was traveling a lot, and she was working from home during the pandemic. So she offered to have the dogs stay with her while I was traveling. The joke was that ‘the dogs moved in before Mike did.’”

Since her death, Turner and Mead have received an outpouring of condolences.

“Everybody has been reaching out, sharing stories,” Mead said. “She made so much of an impact. I know I couldn’t wait to meet someone new so I could brag about her.”

This story was originally published October 21, 2022 11:59 AM.

Profile Image of Anna Maria Della Costa

Anna Maria Della Costa is a veteran reporter with more than 32 years of experience covering news and sports. She worked in Florida, Alabama, Rhode Island and Connecticut before moving to North Carolina. She was raised in Colorado, is a diehard Denver Broncos fan and proud graduate of the University of Montana. When she’s not covering Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, she’s spending time with her 11-year-old son and shopping.

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