tampabay.com

Holding their breath for a chance

By ASJYLYN LODER
Published February 26, 2007


BROOKSVILLE - Lauren Dodson, 17, describes herself: She doesn't like fights, they make her nervous; she thinks she's funny but it's hard to judge herself; she's the treasurer for the Free Radicals at Nature Coast High School, a group of freethinkers.

This is what the poised high school senior said Saturday morning to Marcy Terry, Weeki Wachee mermaid manager.

Dodson joined six other mermaid hopefuls Saturday morning, spending nearly an hour in the spring demonstrating buoyancy, breath control and grace. Terry needed to add two mermaids to the 17-mermaid roster, and Dodson was an odds-on favorite.

She is a strong swimmer, and catches on quickly. Her mother was a mermaid from 1969 to 1972. Dodson is already a lifeguard at the water park.

Terry asked if she could handle the press and the cameras that routinely show up at the quirky, one-of-a-kind attraction on U.S. 19, just south of State Road 50. Dodson glanced at the gaggle of reporters and smiled.

A natural.

* * *

It's a minimum-wage gig, paying $6.75 an hour. And the underwater shows - lithe women in brightly colored mermaid tails - are all little girls behind the glass ever see of the hard work.

Unless like Dodson you see them, and dream for years, and cross to the other side of the glass.

This is the story most aspirants tell.

"I've always wanted to be a mermaid since I was a little kid," said Amanda Miles, 25, of Brooksville, the oldest of the hopefuls. Saturday was her second try.

"I think I was 10 when I first saw a video of this place," said Sasha Gaulin, 19, who wore purple beads to match her swimsuit and had a pastel fairy tattooed on her right shoulder blade.

There was Candace Croshir, 18, of Spring Hill, wrapped against the cold in a beach towel decorated with kittens; Laura Leigh Gingerich, 22, who drove 12 hours from Tennessee with her boyfriend; and Jamie Babcock, 18, of Spring Hill with her best friend Chelsea Hearn, 19, of Brooksville.

It takes a year of training, Terry warned.

Learning to hold your breath for up to two minutes, learning to exhale and drop your body swiftly and deep into the spring without the help of weights, learning to catch air from the underwater tubes. It takes scuba certification and a full-time commitment.

"Once you're here, you're always a mermaid," said Marcy Terry, mermaid manager. The unique mermaid park at Weeki Wachee Springs celebrates its 60th anniversary this year with a mermaid reunion.

Terry's roster of mermaids is thinning. Some have been swimming shows for years, and have families now, and can only work a few days a week.

She needs new girls in the water. The four swimmers she decided to hire are Hearn and Miles, who start training right away; and Gingerich and Dodson, who start in June.

Asjylyn Loder can be reached at 352 754-6127 or aloder@sptimes.com.