Makin’ a splash

Ksenia Medvedeva, 11, left, and Sydney Murphy, 11, test out the mermaid tails they made at the community pool Friday. The pair started working on the project in January and submitted their mermaid tails to the Maker's Faire on May 18 and 19 in San Mateo.

Nearly a quarter century after an enchanting, underwater princess named Ariel swam into young girl’s hearts with the release of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid,” a pair of Morgan Hill inventors – Sydney Murphy and Ksenia Medvedeva, both 11 and in the fifth grade – have created their very own usable mermaid tails with prosthetic fins.

“I always wanted to be a mermaid,” explained Sydney, who joined forces with her friend to make that childhood dream a reality. “Every kid wants to have a super power. That’s the super power I wanted.”

Ksenia, whose favorite Disney princess happens to be the under-the-sea star of the 1989 animated musical fantasy – was delighted to join in the fun.

Being able to glide gracefully underwater like a mermaid is a dream Sydney and Ksenia have shared since they were 3.

“It became more of a desire to create an actual tail when she started learning about mythology,” explained Sydney’s mother, Nichole Murphy. “That’s when she starting tying her feet together, duct-taping flippers together.”

When Sydney was 8 years old, her grandparents even bought her a commercially-manufactured mermaid fin, but “all it did was slow you down,” said Sydney, who clearly was destined for loftier aquatic aspirations than what retails stores could provide.

“My favorite princess was Ariel,” shared Ksenia as the duo, calling themselves “Team Folktail,” prepared for one final test run last week in their community pool in the newer housing development off Calle Viento in northwest Morgan Hill. “I remember I got a bunch of mermaid babies for Christmas and I tried to make them swim in the sink.”

These days, Sydney and Ksenia have swapped their playthings for the real things. The two dolphin-kicked around the community pool recently, propelling themselves seemingly effortlessly through the water.

“It’s like you can picture yourself in the real ocean and really swim (like a real mermaid),” said Sydney, tall and slender with flowing brown hair and big brown eyes. “You just kind of go with the flow.”

The prosthetic mermaid tails – 4-foot sleeves that are 90 percent polyester and 10 percent spandex – are slipped on like long, tight-fitting skirts. Sydney and Ksenia sewed the black and turquoise-colored fabric – which is iridescent and gives off a shimmery, scaly look – together themselves after Ksenia’s mother, Anna Medvedeva, first showed the girls how to do a temporary stitch by hand and then how to use a sewing machine to make it permanent. The 24-inch-long prosthetic fin is made of clear vinyl and held together by metal rulers and bolts. The ensemble, which cost less than $150 in materials, is completed after the girls slip their feet into a pair of water shoes, which are bolted onto the prosthetic fin.

“You have to kick harder to really propel through the water,” added Ksenia, who has long blonde hair with bright blue eyes and freckles. “It sort of feels like your legs are stuck together.”

The results of their creative efforts have been magical – so much so that the Morgan Hill pair, which first got together in January during the Imagination Unlimited program for home school students held at the Coyote Grange – were invited to present their invention during Wearable Tech Day at the San Jose Tech Museum last month.

From there, the girls were courted by organizers of the May 18 San Mateo Maker Faire, described on its website as “The Greatest Show (and Tell) on Earth … a family-friendly festival of invention, creativity and resourcefulness, and a celebration of the Maker movement.”

Sydney and Kesenia had the opportunity to hold another demonstration on the main stage, where they showed off their mermaid prototypes by swimming in a portable pool during the first-time Young Maker segment. No awards or medals are given, but the girls’ prize, besides sharing their idea with other inventors, was meeting Adam Savage, host of the Discovery channel’s popular “Mythbusters” show. That was “reward enough,” said Sydney’s mom.

“They exemplify the creative thinking, exploration and innovation of the Maker Faire spirit,” said Vice President Sherry Huss of Maker Media. “It’s great to see kids like this learn all about LEDs, conductive thread and design going into such a fun and unique project.”

Behind every great success, however, are myriad stages of trial and error – a process that involved experimentation with various materials including duct tape, flippers, foam, bubble wrap and even liquid latex.

“Never underestimate what you can do,” said a proud Anna Medvedeva, who came to the states 15 years ago from her native Moscow, Russia. “Every prototype, when we brought it out, we thought was going to work. They would have brief success, two minutes, then an hour. The last time it was like (many) hours.”

The girls are in their third phase of developing the mermaid prototype over a five-month span and tested out the prototypes multiple times in their 5-foot deep, neighborhood pool leading up to the Maker Faire presentation. Prior to the Faire, they practiced “Little Mermaid” impressions for five to six hours per day, three days week.

“I thought she was going to grow scales,” laughed Anna of her daughter Ksenia, who also is a member of the Morgan Hill Splash Aquatics team.

The tinkering of their mermaid invention continues.

“In the future, we want to make it one piece instead of two,” remarked Ksenia.

“It was very important for it to be stretchy,” detailed Sydney, chiming in.

“The best part of this project is that it is truly theirs,” said Sydney’s mother, Nichole Murphy, a Southern California native and avid swimmer who coached the U.S. swim team at San Francisco State University. “The last 18 weeks they’ve tested, bled, cried and laughed over all the details, and learned through trial and error on how to complete a long-term project.”

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