In GreenSportsBlog’s 7+ year history, we’ve interviewed a wide range of climate change-fighting athletes, from baseball players to tennis players to rock climbers and much more. We’ve never spoken to an open water swimmer. Nor an ice swimmer. Nor a mermaid.
Thanks to Estonia’s Merle (pronounced MYRRH-luh) Liivand, we were able to interview all three in one person. And not only is she a triple-threat in the water (warm and cold), she’s also a passionate advocate for clean waterways and the climate fight.
GreenSportsBlog: Merle, I’ve never spoken to a mermaid before, much less interviewed one. But before we get to that aspect of your story, and your passion for clean oceans and the climate fight, let’s start at your beginnings in Estonia. Were you a swimmer as young kid?
Merle Liivand: Not really, Lew. I had a lot of illnesses as a kid. Asthma, problems with my immune system.
I suffered a collapsed lung when I was 11. The doctor said, ‘you should try swimming’. My mom, who was a serious handball player during Soviet times, agreed. At my first lesson, I found myself feeling jealous of the other kids who were getting ready for races. One year later, I got to the national finals for my age group — my events were the 50 and 200 meter breaststroke. I had a fever that day but somehow was able to get to the podium with a third place finish.
GSB: Only one year after your first lesson? Amazing.
Merle: Thank you. Estonia has a very strong swimming program — we’ve won four world championship gold medals over the years and many Estonians have come to the U.S. to swim at D-I college programs — and the coaching is very good.
GSB: Did you continue to your move up Estonia’s swimming ladder through high school?
Merle: I should have but my asthma and other illnesses held me back. I’d be fine then I wouldn’t be able to breathe and then I’d end up at the ER. I kept on getting sick, getting better, train, get sick, get better, train. This was not a way to live. It got to the point that I hated myself and hated swimming. I wondered, ‘who could fix me’.
I ended up going to Florida to go to university and swim but, once I got there I realized I didn’t want to do the NCAA swimming thing.
GSB: So what did you want to do?
Merle: Funny, that’s what my mother asked me! I wanted to be a social entrepreneur and I wanted to swim, to practice, but not to compete. On the former, I thought I would just figure it out.
GSB: I have a feeling you did just that…
Merle: Eventually I merged my entrepreneurial spirit with what I loved — except when I hated it — and that’s swimming.
So, I launched SWIMERA in Miami when I was 23 in 2013, with the goal to help people to be happy around swimming. We help coach swimmers as well as swimming coaches, making them better and more responsive. We also sell swimming products.
At around that time I learned that food allergies — to gluten, mangoes, dairy, cauliflower and cherries. Yes, my asthma is still there but my health improved, which was a huge deal.
GSB: That’s great to hear. Did you get back into competitive swimming?
Merle: I entered some ironman triathlons but found that the swimming — 2.4 miles or 3.9 km — was too short. So I decided to try long distance, open water swimming. I won my first race, the Miami Mile. Then, on my 25th birthday, I made the podium in a 6.25 mile/10 km swim.
GSB: You are a fast learner, Merle! Open water is an Olympic sport, right?
Merle: Yes, the 10K has been an Olympic sport since Beijing in 2008. I hope participate in the Tokyo pre-trials in late May but things are a bit up in the air thanks to COVID.
GSB: I know. Good luck. Now, what about ice swimming?
Merle: Ahhh, ice swimming! I had heard around 2015-16 that it was growing, that the international swimming community was getting behind it and that the IOC is interested. So of course got into it!
In 2018, the World Championships came to Estonia and I took second place in the 200 breaststroke.
GSB: That you took second shortly after getting into ice swimming doesn’t surprise me — you’re an awfully quick learner! But just wait a second here: How cold does the water have to be for ice swimming? And why do people do it?
Merle: The water temperature has to be between 0-5° C or 32-44° F. Basically, the events are held in outdoor pools in climates that are suitable for the required water temperatures. Sometimes organizers build 25 meter pools out of ice chunks that melt to the allowable temperature range. Lew, it is so much fun, much more so than the Ironman swims. It is the fastest growing water sport in the world!
And, I have to tell you, my love for ice swimming sparked my interest in climate change because it is becoming harder and harder to find places to race because the temperatures are getting warmer and warmer.
GSB: I’m glad you found ice swimming since it awakened your passion for the climate crisis. Was that your first foray into environmentalism?
Merle: No. That was more about climate change specifically. My open ocean swimming had made me very concerned about the ocean waste issue.
I was in Rio for three weeks during and after the 2016 Olympics, not as a competitor, but rather to teach kids to swim as mermaids…
GSB: …Whoa, whoa, WHOA! OK, how did you become a mermaid and then come to teach kids how to become one?
Merle: This goes back to why I launched SWIMERA six years ago: I wanted to find a fun way to get kids to swim and to keep adults swimming.
At around the same time, I thought to myself, ‘why is Michael Phelps so fast?’ The answer is that his underwater prowess with his legs is like that of a merman! So I started to think about getting a mono-fin that would make me a mermaid.
A company called Finis had a plastic one but it didn’t handle the cold water well. So, in 2015 they sent me one made of silicone that was better in all temperatures and it was much more eco-friendly to boot. You could use them in the pool, in the open water, in ice swimming.
Finis started mass producing them; you can buy them at Target! I ended up becoming an ambassador for them, one of their 20 mermaids. It is time for mermaids to take over the world! It’s becoming a movement.
GSB: Like ice swimming? If I had to choose between the two, I’d go for the merman. Anyway, back to the environment and your experience at Rio teaching kids how to be mermaids…
Merle: The massive plastic and sewage pollution problem in the bays was cleaned up for the Olympics but three days after the closing ceremonies, the difference was stark. I mean, I was on the roof of my hotel, overlooking Copacabana Beach and the site of the triathlon swim. The trash and the toilet paper were back; it was disgusting and sad.
I had just gotten into open water swimming and so this rang the bell for me. We had to change our behavior to protect our oceans. I needed to learn more.
So, I started to do some research and was horrified to learn that some open water events had been canceled due to the ocean waste. Some ironman triathlon swims had been cut short for the same reasons.
GSB: What did you do?
Merle: After Rio, I got involved with World Cleanup Day, an initiative to launched in 2008 to promote clean oceans that was led by a group of Estonians — my country had already been a green leader, especially when it came to oceans. Thing is, despite our best efforts and many others working on this issue, nothing has really changed. The condition of the oceans is getting worse. And understandably, with COVID, masks are becoming a huge pollution issue…
GSB: Absolutely. And, because of the COVID-related economic slowdowns and reductions in travel, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2020 not surprisingly ticked downward. This is a blip. Emissions will snap back up once the vaccines are widely distributed. We have to keep fighting on ocean health and climate.
Merle: No doubt about it. We need to do much more. I need to do much more. The best way for me to do this is to help people to learn to open water swim, to become mermaids and mermen…and in so doing, become motivated to clean up the ocean and become engaged on climate.
So, I’ve created Merle The Mermaid as my green brand.
I take my Mermaid Minions on monofin open water swims off the coast of South Florida. Before we take off, I give them a mesh bag to sling over their shoulders. We stop and pick up trash along the way. Then, once we’re back on land, we do street clean up.
Kids especially love and immediately get the value of giving back to ‘Mother Earth’ and they no doubt influence their parents to care about ocean health. Getting people to change behavior is not easy, but becoming a mer-person is fun way to get folks out into the ocean. Experiencing open water pollution up close will be a powerful on-ramp to climate concern and hopefully climate action.
GSB: I’m with you on that. How many people are in your SWIMERA network?
Merle: Right now, my network is about 4,000 open water swimmers, ice swimmers and mer-people all over the world. We expect that to grow in 2021 since we don’t have time to wait on ocean health and climate.
GSB: I see that you’re not waiting around at the start of 2021 — you are in Nicaragua now as Ocean Ambassador! How did that come about and what does it mean?
Merle: I have a friend in Miami who always wondered why I go out collecting trash in the ocean in the middle of the day. He told a friend of his, a painter in Nicaragua, that there is a world class open water swimming, ice swimming mermaid who is trying to raise awareness of the ocean plastic crisis and inspire people to do take action.
Coincidentally, a new port was recently built San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua as a new cruise destination.
GSB: Much of the cruise industry has a horrible environmental track record…
Merle: I know! And so after my friends heard my stories about animals getting stuck in plastic they had an “Aha” moment — let’s paint the port with a mural of animals who get affected the most by microplastic!
One thing led to another and I was named the “Godmother” of the port and that led to my invitation to Nicaragua. I am also an Ocean Ambassador, helping to promote the protection of endangered turtles and to take part in beach cleanups with world class surfers.
Photo at top: Merle Liivand swimming with her monofin, off the coast near Miami (Photo credit: Carl Juste/Miami Herald)