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Animal trainer wins bold medal for work with dolphins

EDITOR'S NOTE: In the spirit of the Summer Olympics, Floridian presents the first in a series of stories on area residents at work, because each evinces the skills of an athlete at the Games and the same dedication to be the best.

Steve Lang's lunge across a pool is not powered by dreams of an Olympic medal but by a 550-pound dolphin who thinks it's all fun and games.

As one of five animal trainers at Busch Gardens Dolphin Theater, Lang spends his work day in over his head in saltwater or up to his elbows in buckets of fish. He flies across the water on a pair of dolphin "skis," or grabs a dorsal fin for a 50-meter dash.

Every day, and each performance, is different.

"You have to make it new and exciting for the animals. You want it to be fun for the audience," says Lang, 35, who was first entranced by birds and then hooked by marine animals during a 13-year-stint at Orlando's Sea World.

His shift at the Tampa theme park begins hours before the day's four shows. Backstage, trainers prepare up to 30 pounds of mackerel, herring, squid and sardines for each animal. The trainers monitor the animals' health and even mix their sea water (2,000 pounds salt added to fresh water twice a week).

But the heart of their work is teaching.

For spins, flips, waves and other cue'ed behavior _ please, do not call it tricks _ Atlantic bottlenose dolphins Mic and Bud, sea lions Reggie and Leo and otters Peewee and Sheau-li get a bite of smelt, a favorite toy or perhaps a belly rub. "The teaching is a challenge. It takes time and you have to be patient," Lang says.

The job is physically demanding as well. Trainers work out with weights daily at the gym across the street, and must pass a physical-fitness exam annually: pullups, pushups, swimming laps, diving 25 feet to retrieve a weight.

The trainers, not the dolphins.

Mic and Bud are the true athletes, Lang says.

"You can't believe the power. It's incredible," Lang says. When they "do a hydro" _ push Lang through the water with their rostrums (noses) placed against the bottoms of Lang's feet _ "you can feel the pressure on your eye sockets.

"You're trying to pop out of the water and look graceful at the end and you've just swallowed gallons of seawater."

Lang has nursed sick manatees and stranded whales. He was one of the animal rescue experts dispatched to Alaska when the Exxon Valdez dumped 11-million gallons of crude on Alaska's coastline.

And though he frequently declines his girlfriend's entreaties to go to the beach ("I've had enough sun and water") and instead closets himself with his guitar on his days off, Lang can't imagine a more glorious pursuit.

"I get to play in the water all day. I get to play with animals all day."