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Former Olympians don fins, swim for crowds at Silverton

Olympian, mother, mermaid - Heather Carrasco is all three.

The Mountain's Edge resident can be seen playing her mermaid role Thursday through Sunday in the aquarium at the Silverton, 3333 Blue Diamond Road. She performs with several other mermaids for 15 to 30 minutes at a time, interacting with families on the other side of the glass.

"My favorite part is seeing the reaction from the kids outside the tank," Carrasco said, "realizing that they think we're real mermaids. And swimming with the stingrays and fish and sharks; most people can't say they do that."

Like most people, Carrasco has been watching the Olympics lately, but unlike most, she has been in the games.

She was a member of the U.S. synchronized swimming team that won gold in 1996 in Atlanta. Every four years, she still gets chills thinking about it.

"All the feelings come back of when I was in the Olympics," Carrasco said, whose team received a perfect score of 100. "...Hearing your national anthem go on, and to have that gold medal put around you, it was amazing."

Carrasco started in 2004 at the Silverton and is its only full-time mermaid. The job has its ups and downs, she said.

Hauling a 50-pound tail takes some getting used to. Then there is the water.

"Swimming in cold water is never an easy task to do," she said.

Hot showers are available to Carrasco and her colleagues, and they have time to dry off afterward, but they are back in the cold water five or six times per shift.

The mermaids breathe through five oxygen regulators placed throughout the tank. Carrasco said she can hold her breath for about three minutes, but with oxygen readily available, she always refills after about 30 seconds.

Fellow mermaid Sonja Van der Velden has been at the Silverton for six months and was a performer in "Le Reve" at Wynn Las Vegas.

Like Carrasco, she said swimming in cold water is the only unpleasant part of the job.

"You get to live in a fantasy world with those little fish, and you make little boys and girls happy," Van der Velden said.

The water may have been tough to get used to, but initially, she had bigger concerns.

"The first day I was scared because these (sharks) are pretty big," she said. "They're fine as long as you're not an enemy. You give them their space just like with humans."

Van der Velden is a two-time Olympian, competing in 2004 in Athens, Greece, and in 2008 in Beijing. She and her sister, Bianca, competed together in the duet synchronized swimming but never medaled.

That does not bother her, though. Just being there was "a dream come true."

"That was like getting gold," she said.

Contact View education reporter Jeff Mosier at or 224-5524.