‘Mermaid school’ makes a splash

Mermaid Swim_025 Edge 17Jul16By Jess Wisloski

Observer staff

Ever wanted to be a mermaid, swishing your mega-tail through the water and teasing silly mortals that cross your path? Mermaid school, a trend that’s grown across the U.S. over the past 18 months, allows humans to now realize that fantasy in the form of swim lessons, but as this reporter discovered in a recent class held at The Edge in Williston, as funny as it might seem to some, mermaiding is no joke.

Selkie Mermaids is a new Vermont-based mermaid swimming company started by Elaine Fortin, who reached out to the Observer when she began offering classes at the The Edge on June 26.

I’ve long been a confident swimmer, and spent seven years in my late teens and early twenties lifeguarding and teaching swimming lessons for the American Red Cross and various YMCAs. I enjoy a challenge, so the idea of a mermaid swim class sounded novel, and surely worth trying.

What I found when I got there is that there’s a sharp line dividing the women and men from the (would-be) fish at this kind of swimming school.

As a kid, I wore through my VHS of Darryl Hannah in “Splash,” and incessantly sang along to the songs from “The Little Mermaid”…but I am quite sure I didn’t harbor fantasies of actually being a mermaid. (Ninja turtle, yes.) For Jessa Ellis, 9, of Jericho, that isn’t the case — she’s basically wanted to be a mermaid since she was born, her mother Julie Coffey said.

“This is Jessa right here,” she said. “She lives for this stuff.”

When I arrived, the mermaid tails were hung up on a clothing rack on the pool deck, clipped by the fin, and Jessa was exhuberant about putting one on. She wanted to rush through the warm-up exercises led by the instructor, Allie Hameline, and did turbo push-ups so she could get that tail and fin as quickly as possible.

As I struggled to put my fin on, my classmate Victoria Schwarz, of Shelburne, told me the legend of the selkie, or the Scottish/Irish creature that mermaids originate from— basically a tragic figure that leaves the sea to live as a human, and stashes her tail, only to be landlocked when a human makes off with it. What I got from that conversation: Schwarz was a mermaid daydreamer, too

Mermaid fans then, would probably love stretching the bathing-suit-tight tail over their legs, binding those bad boys from functional use. It may even feel freeing — especially because the decorative scale design that runs down your legs has a pretty cool effect once it’s on. But for me, that was terrifying. I don’t recall feeling claustrophobic before, but I had a really hard time forfeiting the use of my legs in the water. Moments before, I’d strapped both my feet into a plastic fin, like two scuba flippers glued together. Forget Ariel, all I could relate to was a cylinder with arms…that was going to have to swim, now. Oh, and speaking of Ariel, the class was set to the tune of “The Little Mermaid” soundtrack, with a few Caribbean songs thrown into the mix.

Putting on the tail was the worst of it, because once in the water it was easier to maneuver…except I wound up pogoing around and tipping over quite a bit. I didn’t notice my classmates having the same struggles, but then, they all looked pretty graceful swimming. Me? I got water in my nose, eyes and mouth with each massive wallop of a kick.

The hour-long class went over basic moves, like gyrating your body over and under the water’s surface, using the hips as a point from which to kick, diving for toys, and handstands. After a few laps across the smaller pool’s length, I could feel how much more tiring mermaiding was than regular swimming. And, how difficult.

It was reassuring then, to learn that our instructor Allie was normally a swim team coach, and one of my classmates, Luke Sweeney, was a racer. Schwarz, who has been open-water swimming since mid-June in the lake, said it was the challenge that attracted her to the class. “It’s way more of a workout,” she said afterwards. “I think the hardest part is not panicking when you get water in your face.”

“It’s even different than snorkeling or scuba diving because you’re mostly using your legs and your arms [in those], not really your center. So I wasn’t really prepared for this either,” she said, as I complained about finding the class tough. “I’m somewhat prepared, and it’s like, yeah, I could really get into this.”

After one more class, she said, she’d feel comfortable enough to buy her own monofin.

Jessa also had a better time of it, and if I’m honest, she made it more fun for me, too. There’s just something infectious about a pogoing 9-year-old goading you to tag them in a game of Sharks and Minnows.

“I really, really like it. If people want to join it’s really really amazing,” she said. “It makes you be a better swimmer and you can learn really cool uniques in it,” she said. I don’t know if uniques is a new word the kids are saying, but I’m going to give her the benefit of the doubt on that one.

“If you want to be a mermaid, take these swimming lessons. I’m a really really really big mermaid fan,” she added, needlessly.

Her mom said she was grateful the classes came to Vermont. “We were preparing to drive to Montreal for mermaid swimming lessons,” said Coffey. “And this came up and it was so close. She’s been asking for a mermaid tail for two years. And she loves to swim.”

Aquamermaid, a company Fortin started swimming with last year, brought mermaiding to Montreal in February 2015. By December, the school operated out of three pools in the city, as well as one in Toronto and one in Ottawa, with more than 4,000 students in 2015.

While mermaiding brings to mind mystical creatures and playful if exotic fun, warnings by the manufacturers of the fins, health officials and consumer advocates have arisen. Public officials in Australia warned parents against buying the full mermaid suits or monofins last December, if they would be used by inexperienced or young swimmers. Manufacturers warn the plastic fins aren’t for use by those under age six, and professional mermaids have spoken out about even mermaid schools being a dangerous introduction to the sport, if taught by inexperienced instructors.

Fortin became certified as a mermaid instructor in March, taught by a national swim coach at the World of Swimming, a foundation based in Detroit, and then trained under Aquamermaid in its techniques and how to set up her own franchise. She’s also a Red Cross Water Safety Instructor. Aside from the Edge class, she hasn’t set up shop anywhere else.

“I love teaching and seeing people catch on and have such fun with this new sport,” she said.

While she has visions of special parties and birthday events, she thinks it can adapt to a multi-age workout. “ I hope to have the older Vermont population try it. Vermont is special, with such a healthy, fit older population, many who love to hike and ski. Mermaiding is thrilling to me, and I hope that they will soon register,” she said.

“Everyone who asks me about it has such a sparkle in their eyes and tells me they want to try it. I just need to get that ball rolling.”