WEEKI WACHEE — Diane Rowden remembers driving from her St. Petersburg home north to Weeki Wachee Springs to watch the live mermaids as a child. She hoped she could one day swim with the finned females.
Rowden followed a career path that took her far away from the underwater theater at U.S. 19 and State Road 50. But an upcoming fundraiser for a local charity will make her dream come true, if only for a day.
Rowden will swim with the mermaids during a fundraiser at the springs on Aug. 9 for the Baby R.I.A. Foundation, an organization that is raising money to build a pediatric intensive and critical care center for children in Hernando and Pasco counties.
On Wednesday afternoon, Rowden, now a Hernando County commissioner, suited up for a brief training session in preparation for her mermaid debut.
"This is every girl's dream," Rowden said, shortly before zipping into a light blue tail.
Before she stepped into the clear water, the staff warned her about two things.
"Today's going to be about getting used to the water temperature and getting used to swimming with a tail," said John Athanason, marketing and public relations director for Weeki Wachee Springs. "It's going to take some time to get used to swimming with a tail."
And it did.
Once in the 72-degree water, Rowden tried to swim with her tail, but the swift current carried her away. Ashley Beadleson, a mermaid at the springs and Rowden's lifeguard and instructor for the day, pulled her back. The two swam, Rowden with a tail and Beadleson without, to the large windows in front of the underwater theater.
Ashley Furlong, a mermaid in plain clothes, gave training instructions to Rowden and Beadleson through a microphone.
First, Rowden had to strike the classic mermaid pose, knees bent and waving to the audience. Then, the mermaid crawl — all while smiling and blowing kisses to the now-empty theater. For the grand finale, Rowden had to complete "the dolphin," a backward somersault submerged in the water.
Her husband was impressed.
"She'd kill me for saying it," Jay Rowden said, "but not bad for a 58-year-old."
After about 15 minutes in the water, Rowden was tired. She paddled over to the dock, shimmied out of her tail and hopped out of the water.
"I have a newfound respect for mermaids," she said.
"You did really well, though," Beadleson reassured her. "Your dolphins were excellent."
Most mermaids take four to six months of training before they make their debut in front of an audience.
After Wednesday's training, Rowden will have one more practice session before she meets the public.
But even a few minutes after she left the water, she was already looking forward to the next time she would swim with the mermaids. In the meantime, she could use the break.
"My arms," she said, "are killing me."
Michael Sanserino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1430.