The Dallas Morning News
SYNCHRONIZED SWIMMERS TOOK THE PLUNGE FOR EXERCISE BUT GAINED SO MUCH MORE
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.”