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Sharing a little mermaid tale

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By Brenda Locklear

Unicorns, elves and fairies - you may not believe but you better think twice if you don’t believe in mermaids. You can ask the kindergarteners at Bushnell Elementary School ... they’ve seen them with their own eyes; or you can take a look in a nearby swimming hole, because at least one mermaid lives right here in Sumter County.

The Bushnell students got a chance to see mermaids last week when they went to Hernando County’s Weeki Wachee Springs for the show. What most of them didn’t know is that one of the mermaids, Mermaid Brittany Fussell, actually lives in Sumter County and was even a kindergarten student at the same elementary school, way back when. 

Mermaid Brittany, 20, was hired as a mermaid last year but more than a decade ago, she was sitting in class at Bushnell Elementary as a kindergartener. And she attended the same mermaid show, with the same teacher who leads the group to the underwater auditorium now - teacher Kathy Tragesser (Hairston at the time).

Mermaid Brittany said when they returned from their trip to Weeki Wachee, they were asked what their favorite part of the trip was. 

“The only thing that I really remember was the witch popping out in the Little Mermaid show because it scared me so bad,” she said of the witch popping from the porthole.

They were asked to draw something from the event, so of course she drew the witch. 

Today, the witch still pops out of the porthole and that first time she saw it again, “It was like deja vu,” she said with a laugh.

Mermaid Brittany is playing one of Ariel’s sisters in the Little Mermaid show they do at Weeki Wachee, but said they learn all the parts and soon, she’ll actually be learning the witch’s part

But, “Coming back, it was very different,” she said.

She said she was amazed by what they did, but she “kind of forgot about it,” through her growing up years and didn’t really think of it as real job potential for herself.

In high school, Mermaid Brittany was a cheer captain for the Raiders and has had plans to become teacher for a while now. She took the Tiny Tots course at South Sumter and one of the teachers who took students to last week’s show is actually a close friend of Mermaid Brittany’s.

In school, she began working at the courthouse and stayed on after graduating in 2015.

Then one day, her aunt, Jeanne Harris-Lively, tagged her on an ad for mermaid jobs.

“And I just ... I had to go try.”

“I didn’t even tell anybody, I didn’t want anybody to get their hopes up. It was the middle of the day so my parents were both at work,” that part was easy, she said. Her parents are Alicia and Wayne Fussell of Bushnell.

But “they wrote numbers really big on our arms, in permanent markers. I came home soaking wet, with numbers on my arm,” she said, recalling how she figured she better tell them. In turn, they told her not to tell her Nana, and get her hopes up.

She really enjoyed her job at the courthouse, but it “really doesn’t compare with being a mermaid,” she said with humor.

She still has plans to become a school teacher, but said she feels a little different about being a mermaid now.

She got her interview and headed out.

“I showed up and there were like 60 girls there.”

“Right off the bat,” she said she thought, “I’m wasting my time. No way - all these beautiful girls here.”

She saw one particular girl that really made her think twice. She said the girl had long mermaid hair, no make-up and was beautiful and she thought, “Oh my goodness, what have I gotten myself into?”

She had arrived early and was sitting in her truck. 

“I sat in my truck for 20 minutes and contemplated going home.”

But then she considered the gas money she had spent and the near hour it taken her to drive over and decided to give it a try.

In small groups, the 60 girls were asked to swim 400 yards - 200 of that was upstream, against the current. That was four football fields, she said, adding that as she was swimming, she kept telling herself, “You want this! You want to be a mermaid!”

The swim had to be done in about 12 minutes.

They also had to take a breath and hold it at least 30 seconds, then go underwater to offer a smile and wave. They did ballet moves, a pinwheel and a dolphin and no more than a dozen girls passed the water part of the interview, according to Mermaid Brittany.

She was one of them and they set up a second interview for her.

The day of the interview, she took a long time picking out her outfit and “I had to have my dad drive me because I was so nervous,” she said.

The interview was questions - her comfort in the water, how she did dealing with the public, etc. That was on a Tuesday and they told her they would let her know by that Friday. She and her dad had lunch at Chik-fil-A and were on their way home when the call came - the job was hers.

“I was so shocked, I didn’t know what to say,” she said, adding that they were all laughing at her.

She started training on July 1 of last year and has almost a year in already.

She’s been dealing with the public and serving as a mermaid representative at various events, from Make-A-Wish children events greeting the public at the theater and at least one little girl’s birthday party. All the while, she’s been in training for her part in the show.

They hired five girls out of the original 60. That beautiful girl that Mermaid Brittany worried would beat her out for a job? She was also hired - that’s Mermaid Kourtney and the two have become close friends, Mermaid Brittany said.

“I loved swimming growing up. My aunt had a pool and we would swim all the time.”

That’s the same aunt that tagged her for the job. They live across the pasture from one another.

“My parents wouldn’t let me swim unsupervised,” so they would sit in the air conditioned car and watch her swim. She was in the pool and if that wasn’t available, she’d take a dip in the pond on their property.

“I’ve always been very comfortable in the water.”

But even with her experience, she said that the 400 yard swim was “one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.” They went downstream and then upstream two times each.

“That last one was so hard.”

She said even the girls who have been swimming there for six or seven years say it’s a tough swim. 

Her yearlong training included scuba certification and paperwork before she even began to train on the air hose. 

“It’s a very different feeling on the air hose,” she said, noting it wasn’t comfortable at all in the beginning. And when she did get comfortable on the air hose, she began to learn the choreography.

“I just recently swam my first show, about a month ago,” adding that the job is more than she ever thought it would be.

“Coming into the job, I really didn’t understand.”

“People tell you what it’s going to be like, but you don’t understand until you start.”

Things like learning to use the air hose were uncomfortable and she really had to “understand how much work it was. I see the show very different now that I’m in it and I see how much goes into it.”

She said she loves the job - all aspects of it, including working with the public.

“I love kids, I want to be a kindergarten teacher,” and she loves the excitement she brings them in character and getting to hear them say things like, “Oh my goodness, a mermaid! I want to be just like you.”

She said she volunteers for any of the public relations jobs that come up, noting it’s her favorite part of the job.

She and another mermaid recently visited John Hopkins Children’s Hospital where they were wheeled around to visit with patients. 

They do a lot of work with Make-A-Wish, she said.

“People come from all over the world to see us. I love my job so much.  I love talking to people. I love performing.”

 

 

 

 

IN THE ARENA:

 

You can even email Mermaid Brittany - she had Tail Mail at the arena.

She works five days a week, including the weekend and they can swim anywhere from one to three shows a day. The theater is usually full, with people who have to be turned away because of seats being sold out.

The mermaids are “only allowed to stay in the water for about an hour,” she said, noting that with the cold water, anything after an hour can lead to the first stages of hypothermia.

After each show, they have to take very hot showers to bring their body temperatures back up to normal, because of the spring water’s cool temperature. They perform at about 35 feet below water level and “the bottom of the spring is about 60 to 70 feet down and the current down there is so strong, if you hold on to the rocks, it will blow your body up.”

They get into the stage area through a tube that goes about 16-feet down and 62- out from shore.

“If you have claustrophobia, this wouldn’t be a job for you,” she said.

They have an airlock below the stage, which is like a fish tank that’s been flipped upside down. When they come in from the tube, they can enter it before it’s time to go and in between their time on stage, so you’re not constantly in the water.

She said it has windows all around so you can see all around.

Because it’s a natural spring, they deal with water snakes, which usually stay near the edge of the main spring, giant snook, little bass and lots of turtles. 

The creatures are all “very comfortable with us because we feed them in the show.”

“The turtles, oh my gosh, the turtles. They’re always in our face. They go for the blondes because our hair is the color of bread. If you’re the only blonde ...”

“The crowd loves it.”

“It’s so annoying - there’s so many turtles.”

“Then of course, the manatees come in the winter. They’ll sleep in the back of the spring,” and during one show, a whole family swam right in front the windows in the middle of the show.

Another time, a group of manatees meant coordinators had to get everyone out of the water.