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Dozens of hopefuls brave cold during Weeki Wachee mermaid auditions

WEEKI WACHEE — At 7 a.m. on Saturday, Lydia Byrd texted her aunt Mista Whitson, "You guys awake?"

Byrd, 22, was ready.

The North Carolina natives flew to Florida for one reason: to watch Byrd try and become a Weeki Wachee mermaid.

"She has wanted to be a mermaid her whole life," Whitson laughed. "This is about as close as she can get."

Byrd was among dozens of women who braved the cold Saturday for the first part of tryouts for the world-famous mermaid squad at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park.

This year, officials said the park had its highest number of people sign up for auditions. They hoped to find eight new mermaids who will perform underwater year-round in 72-degree spring-fed water from the head of the Weeki Wachee River.

About 250 women planned to audition, according to park spokesman John Athanason.

Then on Friday, Athanason said he heard reports that the weather would be "a little cooler than normal." But he did not expect the chill that came Saturday.

"The difference between (Friday's) weather and (Saturday's) weather is two different things," Athanason said. "Will all 250 come? Who knows. Some may walk out of their house and be like, 'I'm going back to bed.'

"It makes you feel good that people want to be a part of something that's special, and that's this park."

As it turns out, about 55 women showed up in the 52-degree weather.

Those who auditioned completed a timed, 300-yard endurance swim, where they swam both with and against the water's current. Those who finished then had to tread water for 10 minutes.

But the cold did not deter Byrd — or the other women who shivered their way through the paces.

Some women donned mermaid tattoos and others wore bathing suits with scales. Many of them kept moving to keep warm.

After the endurance swim, groups sat huddled, bundled in brightly colored towels, goosebumps speckling their legs. The timed swim was hard, they said to each other.

"Dude, it was really hard," said Taylor Sekulski, 20. "I kept asking myself, 'How am I gonna get through this?' "

Her answer?

"I have always wanted to be a mermaid," said Sekulski, who grew up five minutes from the park in Weeki Wachee. "I have pictures, like when I used to dress up as a little girl. I used to watch the show all the time."

After Whitson saw the Weeki Wachee Mermaids two years ago, she told Byrd, "When you finish college, you need to do something cool like this." Byrd, Whitson said, has loved mermaids "since she was a little girl."

"I'll do whatever I can to do (become a mermaid)," Byrd said. "It's so much fun."

Julia Tumamiszwili, a current mermaid, encouraged mermaids Saturday to "never quit."

"It's not like being on land at all. It's like being in a completely different world," Tumamiszwili said. "You're going to come through challenges even after you get hired, but (performing underwater) is a very mental thing."

Athanason said more than more than 40 women will continue to the second round, including Byrd. Successful mermaid-hopefuls will come back for an underwater audition with the theater manager, he said. That audition date has not been set.

The mermaid show debuted on Oct. 13, 1947, in the theater built of limestone and submerged 6 feet below the surface.

Contact TyLisa C. Johnson at tyjohnson@tampabay.com. Follow @tylisajohnson.

Dozens of hopefuls brave cold during Weeki Wachee mermaid auditions 01/13/18 [Last modified: Saturday, January 13, 2018 7:06pm]
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