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        Mermaid divers pursue dreams in the deep

        By XIN WEN in Beijing and FENG ZHIWEI in Changsha | China Daily | Updated: 2021-11-09 07:59
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        A trainee performs mermaid diving at a training center in Changsha, Hunan province, in September. [Photo provided to China Daily]

        If deep-sea diving is only a fantasy during the COVID-19 pandemic, freshwater ponds may satisfy enthusiasts because of their accessibility. But they may not be quite enough.

        Becoming a mermaid might add the needed novelty.

        Mermaid diving is a niche sport that was unknown to most people in China until June, when its profile started bubbling to the surface. People were taught first by underwater sports aficionados in Changsha, Hunan province. Then the phenomenon spread nationwide.

        The rise of the little-known underwater sport was accelerated by a video featuring a nymph of ancient China that was broadcast during this year's Dragon Boat Festival in June.

        The Henan TV Station show was shot underwater and went viral online. The dancer mastered not only her dancing techniques but the ability to hold her breath for a long time without showing stress.

        Her beautiful moves and peerless elegance amazed netizens and were perfectly presented below the water. The dancer could control her buoyancy to a great extent after training.

        Chen Ruoping, one of the diving enthusiasts inspired by the floating underwater dance, became a coach this year.

        "When submerged in water, the mermaids can make beautiful moves requiring no apparatus," the 36-year-old said. "The divers do their routine on a single breath."

        As an additional outlet for divers to explore their underwater passion, the diving sport can be learned easily, Chen said. A clear swimming pool with a depth of about 1 to 1.5 meters meets the basic requirement.

        Wearing a pair of fins, Chen squeezes orange flippers into a mermaid tail. When everything is ready, she swims into a pool 1.8 meters deep and continuously spins, rolls and slides.

        She does it most days in the summer at a gym in Changsha.

        Mermaid diving integrates free diving, yoga and synchronized swimming. It emphasizes coordination and strength in the arms, abdomen, waist and hips.

        Trainees wear unique mermaid tails to train underwater and dress in matching styles with makeup.

        A native of Changsha and the mother of a 6-year-old daughter, Chen began learning to dive in 2012 and has visited various Southeast Asian countries since then.

        "I settled in Phuket, Thailand, in 2014," she said. "As a certified coach for scuba diving and free diving, I've helped about 100 students obtain qualifications for the two diving skills. I'm very proud of this and wish more people would develop an interest in diving."

        When the pandemic hit, Chen chose to return to Changsha, and that's when she discovered mermaid diving.

        "It's beyond my imagination that such a huge market existed in mermaid diving in China," she said. "Countrywide, tens of thousands of people have mastered the skills. More than 200 students have earned certificates in less than a year."

        Last month, 75 training sessions for mermaid diving took place in Guangdong province, with about 300 to 400 people trained, said Zheng Ruyue, co-founder of a major mermaid diving institution in China.

        Each class takes about four hours. The training includes four classes in two days, and costs 2,800 yuan ($438). About 95 percent of the trainees stick with the sport, Zheng said.

        "The ages of our trainees span a broad range, from 6 years old to 65," Zheng said.

        Most of coach Chen's students are professionals in their 30s and 40s who are hoping to build a strong body and embrace a challenge.

        Since September, she has traveled across the country to train people.

        "I wanted to steer people away from thinking that diving is solely an extreme and dangerous activity and show that it can be a lot of fun and relieve stress," she said. "Mermaid diving is the easiest one to learn among all diving training, and I hope being a mermaid can get more people into the sport."

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