* You read that right: Mermaid.

To say Merle (pronounced MYRHH-luh) Liivand is multi-faceted is an understatement.

Aside from being a champion open water and ice swimmer, an environmentalist as well as, yes, a mermaid (more on that later), Liivand is also persistent, a visionary entrepreneur and a Pied Piper. Those qualities and more are why EcoAthletes is excited to welcome her to its family of athlete Champions.

Merle Liivand (Photo credit: Gary Curreri/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

As an 11-year old in her native Estonia, Liivand was battling asthma and a collapsed lung. Her doctor suggested she try swimming and, despite it not being a cure, she was hooked. An age group champion in both the 50 meter and 200 meter breaststroke through her teen years, she moved to Florida for college. But the cutthroat world of NCAA swimming was not for her, especially as episodic health issues made it difficult to train consistently.

Eventually, Liivand found that food allergies were the cause of many of her ailments. Finally healthy, she started entering triathlons but found that the 2.4 mile swims were not long enough for her. So, she tried an open water (or Marathon) swim (6.25 miles) on her 25th birthday in Miami and won it. An Olympic sport since 2008, Liivand is training for the Pre-Olympics races in Japan in May, with the top 20 making it to Tokyo.

What about ice swimming (swimming that takes place in water below 5° C/41° F), you ask? Liivand heard through her contacts in Estonia that it was becoming a ‘thing’ and that the IOC is considering adding it to the Olympics roster. “The World Championships came to Estonia in 2018,” Liivand recalled. “I got off the plane from Florida, swam the 200 meter breaststroke and came in second place.”

It was her love of ice swimming that heightened Liivand’s concern about climate change.

“It is so much fun, you have to believe me,” implored Liivand. “In fact it is the fastest growing water sport in the world! It would be growing even faster except that it is hard to find places to race because of climate change. There are fewer venues where the temperatures are in the necessary range.”

Her open water swimming in more temperate climes sparked anger about another environmental issue — ocean waste. Liivand saw it up close while she was in Rio for the 2016 Olympics to teach kids how to swim with mermaid ‘monofins’ (“when used properly, they allow you to swim much faster — plus they’re fun!”)

While the local organizers did a great job of cleaning up the plastic and open sewage for the benefit of athletes, on-site fans and TV viewers, that cleanliness was shortlived.

“Three days after the Closing Ceremonies, the difference in the water quality was massive,” Liivand shared. “I could see the trash in the waters off of Copacabana Beach from the roof of my hotel. It was gross. And so that was my ‘aha’ moment, that things needed to change around ocean waste and climate change and I needed to do something about both issues.”

Her research into ocean pollution revealed that some open water swims as well as some Iron Man triathlon swims had been canceled due to ocean plastic.

So after Rio, Liivand began to build her own brand as “Merle The Mermaid”, draping a mesh bag over her shoulder for ocean swims off of South Florida. She would stop and pick up trash along the way. Soon, she was bringing a band of young “Mermaid Minions” along with her to help pick up the trash — and to influence their parents to care about ocean health and climate change.

Merle Liivand and some of her Mermaid Minions off the coast of South Florida (Photo credit: Estonian World)

Becoming an EcoAthletes Champion is a logical next step for Liivand.

“Athletes and coaches make a huge difference on ocean waste and on climate, in-person and via the media,” noted the now 29 year-old Liivand. “I am very excited about joining such a wonderful community of Champions who are bringing the positive message of climate solutions to their fans. EcoAthletes makes it possible for all of us to exchange ideas and learn from each other, which will help all of us increase our impact on the climate fight.”

EcoAthletes founder Lew Blaustein sees Liivand as a key addition to the Champions roster.

“Merle brings both charisma and passion — especially as it relates ocean waste and climate — to our Champions network,” noted Blaustein. “We look forward to working with her to build the #ClimateComeback amongst her fans, ‘minions’, and more.”

Photo at top: Merle Liivand, swimming with her monofin off of the Miami coast (Photo credit: Carl Juste/Miami Herald)

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