Way Back at Mac: An aquatic anecdote of Mac Mermaids


Mac Mermaids practice in 1938. Photo courtesy of the Macalester archives.

Katrin O'Grady

Though Macalester still boasts a Swim and Dive team and a Water Polo team, the formerly known Macalester Aquatics League used to feature several other events including interpretive diving and musical swimming. Founded in 1926, the League included all things aquatic: competitive swimming, diving and synchronized swimming, among other underwater artistic activities.

Despite this vast vision for the aquatic ensemble, the surf was rough as the remarkably few founding aqua enthusiasts searched for additional members. The pioneers certainly, and perhaps somewhat desperately, cast a wide net, advertising for swimmers, canoers and anyone who could “dive to retrieve a set of false teeth.” The variety of skill sets seemed to attract a wide enough crowd as the club was officially recognized and hosted their first meet in 1927 featuring swimming, diving, and swimming and diving to music. A true Macalester legacy was up and running.

Mac Mermaids practice in 1938. Photo courtesy of the Macalester archives.

In addition to hosting water athletics exhibitions, the league also promoted and fostered anything else that had something to ‘‘dew’’ with water. May of 1927 featured a Red Cross Life-Saving Test hosted by the club. To receive a passing mark, participants had to swim five lengths of the pool, enter the water ‘head-first’ break front and back strangle holds, among other life-saving skills. In October 1927, the League, along a different vein, hosted a canoe trip on the St. Croix river. In terms of artistic expression, the Aquatic League exhibitions boasted themes, costumes and multiple acts. The June 6, 1930 issues of The Mac Weekly details the circus themed spring aquatic show featuring acrobats, clowns, tumblers and a ring master.

However, these water-ful activities were unfortunately not for all to enjoy. The Aquatics League held tryouts every year where hopefuls had to complete various swim and other aquatic tests. A Dec. 15, 1926 article of The Mac Weekly reported that “blindfolded, trembling victims were led through mysterious realms; of various degrees of coolness and warmth, sometimes amid much humidity, and after the air and water test were admitted into the ranks of the Aquatic League.” The article unfortunately neglects to explain the content of the air and water tests.

In the 1930s, the competitive and artistic aspects of the League began to part ways. Much of the artistic elements of the group pooled into a synchronized swim team, The Mac Mermaids. The Mermaids specialized in group synchro performances and swim or dive routines set to music. In addition to community performances, the Mermaids made it to the big stage in the 1950s. “Industry on Parade”, a TV series highlighting U.S. manufacturing, hired the Mac Mermaids to showcase the world’s largest portable and inflatable swimming pool created by Doughboy Industries in New Richmond, Wisconsin. The group’s video appeared on 200 television stations.

Despite making waves nationally, the Mac Mermaids and the broader Aquatic League sputtered out in the 1960s. Though the archives fail to provide a proper explanation for the loss of a club touting aquatic appreciation, we can most likely assume that growing interest in more competitive intercollegiate sports contributed to the drop in numbers. Although the group eventually dissolved into bubbles, they certainly made a big splash at Macalester in the 20th century.