The magic of being a mermaid

If you find yourself swimming laps at a local pool this summer and see a mermaid glide past you in the water, don't worry, you don't need prescription goggles - she's real.

Most days, Annette Johnston and her friend Lori Pappajohn can be found at various pools around town wearing their hand-crafted mermaid tails.

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Johnston, a Burnaby physical therapist, and Pappajohn have been "mermaiding" for about a year, and can't seem to get enough of the activity that blends light-hearted dress-up with seri-ous athleticism.

"It makes swimming fun; it makes exercising fun," said Johnston.

Sometimes the pair just wear their regular bathing suits and use a monofin, a single flipper for both feet.

But most days they don one of their colourful mermaid tails that cover the fins, and enjoy the attention from both kids and adults who can't help but approach them with questions and requests to have a go themselves.

"They're all fascinated," said Johnston. "And that's the fun part about wearing the tail."

It all started in 2010 when, already an avid swimmer, Pappajohn saw two swimmers doing lengths at Canada Games Pool using monofins.

She got talking with them and asked if she could try the fin, which she immediately appreciated for its ability to help propel her swiftly through the water. Experienced monofin swimmers can move at speeds of up to 11 km/hr, she said.

It wasn't long before she got a fin of her own, and was using it regularly.

"I was so into monofining, and then one evening I came back from the pool and Googled "mermaid" and I was blown away by the stuff that came up. I

was like, 'OK, people are really into this. Like, seriously into it.'"

If swimming like a mermaid was fun, Pappajohn realized looking like one would just be that much better.

Through trial and error, she spent about two months creating the perfect mermaid tail out of a custom-designed monofin and colourful dance costume material.

When she and Johnston planned a trip to Hawaii for a holiday last year, Pappajohn hired a professional photographer to get pictures of the two as mermaids in the sea.

"It was amazing," said Johnston. "You could hear the whales in the background. That was the funnest day of my life."

Johnston and Pappajohn get their custom-shaped monofins from Bronco Custom Works in New Westminster.

Owner Renzo Carbonel does all kinds of custom plastic fabrication, from business signs to bullet-proof windows for a penitentiary, so the first request to craft a mermaid tail was not a huge surprise.

"I see all kinds of weird things in this line of work; all different people with different ideas," he said.

Carbonel makes the fins from scratch, precision cutting polycarbonate material that holds up well in chlorinated water.

The two women each have several coloured mermaid tails they keep in their cars, ready to be used whenever the aquatic urge strikes.

In winter, they are usually at Canada Games Pool in New Westminster, and in summer either at the outdoor pool at Robert Burnaby Park or Kitsilano in Vancouver.

Both Johnston and Pappajohn are working on being able to hold their breath to be able to stay under water longer.

Pappajohn is up to a minute, and, so far, Johnston is at about 30 seconds.

Besides their personal swimming goals, the women agree it's the joy their mermaiding brings to others that is the best part of their favourite pastime.

Once while swimming lengths at the pool in Kitsilano, an older man stopped to stare at Pappajohn as she breached the surface, and she said to him, "Have you ever seen a mermaid before?" With a faraway look in his eyes he softly replied, "No - not in a long time."

Kids especially love to watch her in the water.

"They come running," she said. "I take them to the shallow end and I show them how to swim in the dolphin style." She calls it her mermaid school.

Though it's not an official program, the women bring kids' sized monofins with them to the pool for mermaid (and merman) tails to borrow. For those especially keen to learn to be a mermaid, the two can be con-tacted through their website, www. mermaidsinternational.com.

"It makes peoples' day, bringing smiles," said Pappajohn. "It's just fun. - Once you watch it, you go, 'Oh, I've got to try it,' cause it's just so great."

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