WEEKI WACHEE — It was her first performance as a famed mermaid of Weeki Wachee, and 18-year-old Marcy Terry, fresh out of high school, was fighting back nerves.
She hopped into the chilly, crystal-clear water, descended down a short tube and swam into the vast underwater theater.
Her job: stand on a large clam shell and sing like a rock star.
"I was doing great," she said, "and then lightning struck."
The water exploded with light from a nearby bolt. The mermaids were forced to swim to safety.
"It didn't intimidate me too badly, I guess," she said. "I stuck around."
For more than 16 years, Terry has been performing as a Weeki Wachee mermaid, one of the longest in the attraction's history.
Today, she hangs up her tail.
Terry has long harbored an obsession for mermaids.
As a young girl, her parents first drove up from Clearwater to see the Weeki Wachee mermaids, part of the internationally known roadside attraction that has put Hernando County on the map since 1947. To her, they couldn't have been more real. She didn't see the air hoses. She didn't realize the tails were made of cloth.
Growing up, Terry imagined herself as a mermaid.
One time, seeking a more realistic mermaid experience, she tied her legs together with her pants to create a makeshift mermaid tail, swimming through a pool and kicking like a mermaid. She dived for rings. She lay on the pool deck like a "beached mermaid."
"Where were my parents? I don't know," Terry said.
In 1997, during her senior year at Central High School in Hernando County, she tried out to be a mermaid. She made it. Her parents saw it coming.
"I think they knew it was a given that I was going to end up here," she said. "I don't think they knew it was going to end up being a career."
For most, it does not.
Mermaids typically begin at about 18 years old, making $10 an hour, and stick around while they go to school or long enough to figure out what they want to do with themselves.
Mermaid Marcy, as she is commonly known, has starred in thousands of shows.
Now 34, she's a natural performer, at ease doing the aquatic acrobatics and ballet. She looks and breathes comfortably. She says she sees better underwater. She prefers an underwater stage to a real one.
"She's great; very confident," said Robyn Anderson, the assistant manager at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park and Terry's longtime colleague. "You can tell the difference when you have Marcy and a new trainee in the water. It's second nature for her."
One of the keys: Smile and look pretty.
It's not as easy as it might sound, says Terry, the attraction's mermaid manager since 2004, a position that allows her to plan and direct shows as well as train and supervise the 22 staff members.
In May, she helped hold mermaid auditions. Of the 45 girls who applied, two were hired.
"They don't realize how hard it is," she said. "It is our job to make it look easy and fun."
Some couldn't swim. Others held their nose while flipping.
"We've found that you just can't fix that," she said.
Terry hopes to be remembered as someone who has pushed the mermaids, helping them improve the quality of their performances.
"I've been known to be the one who comes up with these really out-of-the-box ideas," she said. "The one with the crazy ideas that pushes them."
She's had mermaids perform inside of frames for a mermaid reunion. The mermaids danced on chairs for an Adele number she choreographed. They hooked silk strands to a buoy in an attempt to imitate aerialists.
Terry is heartbroken about leaving her mermaids.
She's hired every single one of them. She feels protective, like a big sister. She wonders who the next manager will be and whether that person will be up to the task.
But it is time to move on. Terry soon will move with her family to Melbourne, where her husband, Shawn, has taken a promotion. She will stay at home with their two girls: Marina, 8, and Melody, 2.
Terry says she believes she leaves behind a bright future for the mermaids.
Under previous private ownership, the attraction had suffered financially.
With state ownership and a drop in the admission price, the park is now drawing far more visitors than it once did. Last year, 268,000 people came through the gates at Weeki Wachee, up more than 25 percent from the previous year. Before becoming a state park, the attraction was bringing in about 160,000 visitors a year.
She hopes that, in years to come, many other mermaids will be able to share in the experience she's had.
"When you have dreams," she said, "you have to follow them."
Danny Valentine can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1432. On Twitter: @HernandoTimes.