It's a pretty typical Thursday morning at the Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center: kids learning how to swim, triathletes logging laps, grandmothers bopping through water aerobics.
Well, typical save, perhaps, for the three mermaids swishing their tails through the water of the warm pool.
And thanks to hundreds of hours of time spent inside the best custom-made swimmable silicone mermaid tails money can buy, these women do about as good a job of bringing the mythical creatures to life as is humanly possible.
The leader of the pack _ or, rather, the pod (that's what you call a group of mermaids, I'm told) _ is Shannon Dawn Rauch, who identifies on LinkedIn as a "pro mermaid performer" and was one of three original founders of NC Mermania, a convention for "merfolk" that took place in Greensboro, N.C., last weekend.
Rauch, 37, of Charlotte, has popped in for a swim with local friend Margarita Martinez and Ariel Stein of Orlando, Fla. (Yes, this out-of-towner really shares the same name as Disney's "The Little Mermaid.")
"Look, I don't identify as a mermaid as a species. I am having a wonderful time with a really cool job _ just like the cast members at Disney when they dress up like Minnie Mouse."
Anyway, here are answers to some of those questions you might have (although you'll have to leave the ones she posited to your imagination):
1. She just sort of fell into this line of work, after feeling like _ forgive the pun _ a fish out of water in the corporate world. Rauch (pronounced "Rowwwr") is a former realtor and former flight attendant who was working as a social media specialist for WJZY when the Fox station and Sea Life Aquarium at Concord Mills hatched a plan to put her in a tank as a mermaid reporter to help hype Sea Life's early-2014 opening. She bought a $30 spandex tail for her costume, but she parted ways with Channel 46 before the stunt came together.
As a young girl, Rauch says she would tie her feet together with goggles and used the sun to make a mermaid shadow when she swam; so, because it made her feel like a kid again, she started swimming in this new decorative tail, which _ not surprisingly _ would draw attention.
Kids' eyes would turn into saucers. Random adults would whip out their cellphones to take photos. Eventually, a parent asked if she did birthday parties.
"I was like, 'Wait, I can make money doing this? And I suddenly don't have a job. Hmm.' That's when I decided, 'I'm gonna do this.' ... I mean, I've always thought mermaids were cool. When I was little, I wished for wings and a tail for Christmas. I got my flight attendant wings, and now I have a tail!'
2. Yes, she really can make money doing this and call it a career. As "Mermaid Shannon," she and her business partner Kym Cox have a team of five mermaids that work North and South Carolina, and they charge up to $300 for a two-hour appearance at a children's party. They also serve as "ocean ambassadors" by stressing the importance of ocean conservation efforts, and to that end, Rauch self-published a children's book (titled "Turtles Want Teammates") that promotes solutions to "the marine debris situation and the animals that succumb to it."
And she's worn $5,000-$6,000 custom-made tails for appearances at the Caribbean Mermaid Academy at Coral World Ocean Park in St. Thomas and at Downtown Aquarium in Denver, Colo.; and for underwater photo shoots in Mexico, where she free-dove "in character" with 40-foot, 15-ton whale sharks in the open water of the Caribbean Sea.
3. She can hold her breath for more than two minutes in optimal conditions ("we don't use tanks or anything"), she's trained herself to always give off the appearance of being relaxed underwater ("you can't hold your breath with your cheeks puffed out, you can't be blowing bubbles everywhere like out your nose"), and she'll keep her eyes open no matter how much chlorine is in the water.
"You acclimate to it," Rauch says. "I don't like to wear goggles because it makes me look not-real. If I'm doing this, I want to look as genuine as possible."
4. All that said, it's harder than it looks. Her high-end tails weigh upwards of 50 pounds.
They're neutrally buoyant in water, so they don't sink like rocks but they don't exactly float, either. "I have never had a scary stuck-in-tail incident, but I am a very strong swimmer," says Rauch, who has been swimming as long as she has been walking and was a member of the varsity team at Albuquerque Academy in New Mexico.
Bottom line? "It is not safe for someone to put on a mermaid tail without supervision who isn't a strong swimmer. Kids must always be supervised."
5. As she said, no, she doesn't think she's a real mermaid; no, she doesn't believe mermaids actually exist; and no, frankly, she doesn't care what you think about her.
"I'm always prepared to see comments from people making fun of us, saying, you know, 'You guys need to get a real job.' That's gonna happen with this article," Rauch says. "But it's OK. I'm not trying to impress those people. I mean, people will take their kids to see Santa Claus, right? Just relax everybody. I'm doing something that has been doing good for the community. ... I do educational events and I donate (copies of my book) to school libraries. In Coral World, when we sold those books, we donated the proceeds back to their turtle rehabilitation program. Service and philanthropy is a big part of what I'm all about. ... But there are so many different ways for a landlocked mermaid in Charlotte to actually get jobs. It's so much fun."
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