DEEPLY SAT­IS­FY­ING

SYN­CHRO­NIZED SWIM­MERS TOOK THE PLUNGE FOR EX­ER­CISE BUT GAINED SO MUCH MORE

The Dallas Morning News - - SE­NIOR LIV­ING - By KATH­LEEN GREEN Spe­cial Con­trib­u­tor

It’s not ev­ery day that a wa­ter aer­o­bics class morphs into a sis­ter­hood of syn­chro­nized swim­ming. But since 2004, that’s what the McKin­ney Mer­maids have been. Ev­ery Tues­day and Thurs­day af­ter­noon, the group of nine swim­mers from McKin­ney and sur­round­ing sub­urbs con­verge on the McKin­ney Se­nior Recre­ation Cen­ter. On Tues­days, they fol­low up their hard work with af­ter-prac­tice eats and ca­ma­raderie. Their back­grounds vary widely — from coach Rosita Ray-Hoyes, who grew up in Ger­many, to Mar­cia Gort­ney, who still works in the stu­dent nu­tri­tional de­part­ment for Love­joy ISD — but they all show up for the same thing: Ex­er­cise that keeps them healthy in body and spirit.

‘It makes me feel like I’m 16 again.’ Wanda Kin­sey, 80

Ray-Hoyes is one of the orig­i­nal ex­er­cis­ers who talked teacher Laila Swend­sen into el­e­vat­ing their wa­ter aer­o­bics class to a syn­chro­nized swim­ming ad­ven­ture for se­niors. Swend­sen had shared with the group that she was in syn­chro­nized swim­ming great Es­ther Wil­liams’ 1960 movie, Es­ther Wil­liams at Cy­press Gar­dens.

“She was very proud of that,” says Ray-Hoyes. “We started bug­ging her af­ter she told us. We fi­nally got her to do it. She was strict. She used to chase us around,” Ray-Hoyes says.

The Mer­maids re­called that Swend­sen had high ex­pec­ta­tions as she taught them to scull, dive down, do hand­stands, flips, scis­sors, cir­cles, the Eif­fel Tower, and a tricky pull-through ma­neu­ver that in­cludes pulling other mem­bers and go­ing un­der­neath one an­other.

“For the first year, I was so sore,” says Gort­ney. “But these ladies just in­spire me.”

Ray-Hoyes took over as coach when Swend­sen re­tired in 2011 and even­tu­ally moved back to Den­mark. The Mer­maids mostly re­mem­ber Swend­sen’s sweet side.

“She was a won­der­ful lady. I felt like she was my sec­ond mom be­cause my mom was in Ger­many,” says Ray-Hoyes. “When I had all my surg­eries, she sat with my hus­band in the wait­ing room. She said, ‘I’m be­ing your re­serve mom.’ She was re­ally dear to my heart.”

The Mer­maids, who still keep in touch with Swend­sen, strive to up­hold their long tra­di­tion of de­liv­er­ing great shows by be­ing stick­lers about their prac­tice ses­sions to fine-tune their in­tri­cate moves.

For two hours twice a week, the Mer­maids metic­u­lously run through their rou­tines, start­ing with land prac­tice, and then mov­ing into the pool. They are get­ting ready for their an­nual spring shows on May 17, 19 and 24.

Ev­ery De­cem­ber, they en­ter­tain dozens with their Christ­mas shows. And although their guests are usu­ally from area se­nior liv­ing fa­cil­i­ties, ev­ery­one is wel­come to watch.

Wanda Kin­sey is one pre­vi­ous guest who caught the wa­ter bug af­ter see­ing the Mer­maids’ show.

“I came to watch them. I lived in a se­nior com­mu­nity. I never dreamed I was go­ing to watch se­nior ladies,” she says. “I thought, ‘Oh, my good­ness. I’ve al­ways wanted to do that.’ It’s fun, but it’s work.”

At 80, Kin­sey is one of the old­est mem­bers. Alice Ray­mond is also 80. Deb­bie De Groat and Mar­cia Gort­ney are the youngest at age 65.

“It makes me feel like I’m 16 again,” says Kin­sey.

Once in the wa­ter, they don their match­ing swim caps, although they have learned to avoid the flow­ered va­ri­ety.

“You dive down and you come up and the wa­ter stays in the flow­ers. You look like a drowned rat,” says Ray-Hoyes, 68.

Their pre­ferred show at­tire in­cludes match­ing swim caps, fish­net gloves and more, de­pend­ing on the song.

“We al­ways have our nails painted bright red to see in the wa­ter,” Ray-Hoyes says.

One num­ber in par­tic­u­lar has spe­cial flair. “The Bull” chore­og­ra­phy in­cludes mata­dor and bull ac­tion with Ray-Hoyes sport­ing horns. “We even have blood,” she says. String­ing the tunes to­gether can be a time-con­sum­ing chal­lenge.

“I’d rather catch fleas. It’s ter­ri­ble. You’re ready to throw the whole ra­dio away,” she says.

Ray-Hoyes has chore­ographed their shows since 2006. Up­com­ing num­bers will in­clude “What a Won­der­ful World,” “Blaze Away” (a mil­i­tary trib­ute), “When You Wish Upon a Star,” “The Bull,” “Some­where Over the Rain­bow,” and the Celtic tune “Heart­land.” Swim­mer Sharon VanLiew helps out with chore­og­ra­phy, lend­ing her hand to “Moon River” and “Al­l­ey­cat,” com­plete with cat getup.

The Mer­maids have their own Face­book page and match­ing T-shirts.

Be­yond the friend­ship and sheer en­ter­tain­ment, ex­er­cise is the rea­son they got started. Their shared goal has got­ten them through breast can­cer, back surg­eries and even a stroke.

“You have to keep go­ing. If you don’t, you’re lost,” says Ray-Hoyes. “We have peo­ple who have been through things, but that is what is so won­der­ful. They’re com­ing and reg­u­larly ex­er­cis­ing.”

The Mer­maids pull to­gether as they re­cu­per­ate. The show must go on.

“It’s got­ten to be a re­ally, re­ally nice group,” she says. “We all care for each other. We’re proud when we’re do­ing our shows.”

Pho­tog­ra­phy by ROSE BACA

For two hours twice a week, the Mer­maids — in­clud­ing (from left) Rosita Ray-Hoyes, Jeanne Koren, Deb­bie De Groat and Gort­ney — metic­u­lously run through their rou­tines at the McKin­ney Se­nior Recre­ation Cen­ter.

Pam Fo­jtik does a flip dur­ing prac­tice. Though ex­er­cise is the rea­son they got started, friend­ship keeps them go­ing.

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