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Grass skirts and coconuts were nothing new to Hawaiian Kathryn Johnson '00. But growing up in the islands, she never thought she'd wear them.
Johnson, an environmental policy major now working for a water purification company in Boston, spent the summer after her graduation with a touring show in which she performed dives from a 60-foot tower into a small collapsible pool. Brushing off her family's misgivings that she was "running away to join the circus," she spent the summer traveling across the country, dressing as a mermaid and performing for crowds, including children who gathered around afterward to ask, "Are you a real mermaid?"
The show went like this: First, surfing music blared. Then Johnson and the other divers climbed diving platforms and leapt into the air. They surfaced from their 10-foot-deep pool to resounding applause.
The rest of Johnson's performance was less splashy and more educational. An ecological lesson was imparted through a skit starring Big Kahuna, king of the beach, and a band of surfers. Johnson played the part of a surfer, encouraging the audience to keep the beaches clean. But she said crowds were most fascinated by the magical character she played wearing a mermaid tail. Using a hose attached to a hidden tank to breathe, Johnson looked so real that kids would often approach to ask her, "Do you know Ariel?"
Johnson said she loved the easy-going camaraderie of the traveling show and enjoyed the eclectic group of divers brought together for the performance. Most were in their mid-20s and at transition points in their lives. One diver had trained as a nuclear engineer in the Navy. Johnson was unsure how she was going to spend her post-graduation summer until she received an e-mail from Sacco Productions urging her to join the traveling diving show. She jumped at the chance. "How often does one have the opportunity to be a professional athlete?" she asked.
Diving was second nature to Johnson by then. She began diving in tenth grade when her geometry teacher, the school's diving coach, recommended the sport as an alternative to the physical stress of gymnastics. She took easily to the sport and swept the Big Island Championship three years in a row. Her success continued at Colby, where she was a four-year varsity letter winner and set several school records. Her senior year she won the Millett Award as the student who contributed the most to her sport at Colby.
Johnson didn't think her experiences as a diver would translate directly to the working world. Neither did her parents. "At first they said, 'You're doing what?' and ' Are we supposed to be happy about this? How high?'" she recalled. "But in the end they were happy as long as I was happy and not getting myself killed."
She was happy, but eventually Johnson traded in her coconuts and grass skirt for professional clothes, though she kept her ties to the water. She now is working in Boston for Ionics, Inc., an international water purification and desalinization company. Though she left her mermaid suit behind, Johnson said her fling with high diving taught her some things: "You can successfully support yourself doing anything you want and enjoy life at the same time," she said. "Working at the diving show was a very liberating experience."
--Blake Hamill '02
HOW SHOULD WE TEACH?
Small Triumphs: Alex Quigley '99 finds reason for both hope and despair in the Mississippi Delta
A Ray of Hope: Brittany Ray '93 inspires where she found her inspiration
An Education CEO: Robert Furek '65 brings accountability to Hartford public schools
Charting Success: James Verrilli '83 directs charter school turn-around in Newark
Perspectives on Reform: Colby experts discuss reform and the purpose of education
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