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Remembering Susan Backlinie

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Whether swimming her way across the big screen in the motion picture classic “Jaws,” or across the crystalline waters of the vast underwater amphitheater that forms the centerpiece of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, actress, and stuntwoman Susan Backlinie also swam her way into the hearts of millions of fans.

Susan Backlinie passed away on May 11, 2024, at the age of 77.

Backlinie achieved screen immortality through her portrayal of beautiful young swimmer Chrissie Watkins, whose violent, jarring shark attack opens the 1975 screen masterpiece known as “Jaws.” What many viewers didn’t know is that this talented, graceful young woman honed her athletically driven form of water ballet through her year of swimming the Weeki Wachee waters in the cheerier role of a park mermaid.

John Athanason, tourism marketing specialist at Florida’s Adventure Coast Tourism Bureau and former development representative at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, holds fond remembrances of the mermaid who became a star. “Susan is an icon who performed in an iconic scene and film,” he said. “And no one could have performed that scene except for a Weeki Wachee mermaid. She repeatedly credited Weeki Wachee, where she swam as a mermaid from 1965 to 1966, with lending her the skills that enabled her to perform that scene.”

Athanason praises the incredible athletic skill that Backlinie displayed in this scene–not to mention the terrified facial expressions and frantic cries that truly distinguished this legendary film sequence. “She made the scene. What we need to remember is that you don’t actually see the shark in this scene—it’s Susan who made us feel the terror while witnessing Chrissie’s attack. When people think of ‘Jaws,’ they think of her,” Athanason stated.

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Backlinie also made countless lifelong friends at Weeki Wachee—including Athanason. “For a long time, she visited the park once a year,” he said. “I’ll never forget the first time I met her. She still had that long blonde hair. I recognized her immediately.”

Through the years, Athanason said that a warm bond of friendship formed between himself and the woman whose film had terrified him as a child. “The first time I met Susan, I told her I refuse to go in the water at night, even in my pool, thanks to her,” Athanason said with a chuckle. “But she was the sweetest lady. We talked, not only about ‘Jaws,’ but about her time at Weeki Wachee and our families.”

Athanason conducted a video interview with Backlinie (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ab8PV73-fM) when she visited Weeki Wachee in 2011. During this extensive interview, she revealed that she incorporated her ballet-style mermaid moves and her overall ease with performing (ease attained during her ‘mer-days’) into her swimming scene—and also that she has a daughter who resided in Brooksville. She said that she greatly enjoyed her days as a mermaid, calling it the most fun job she ever had, where a typical work day involved three hours spent underwater while performing a trio of dramatic aquatic shows.

Also, during the interview clip, Backlinie can be seen posing for photos with a current Weeki Wachee mermaid.

According to a bio on IMDB, Backlinie went on to gain further fame in another Steven Spielberg film, “1941,” in which she spoofs her iconic swimming scene. Also a former wild animal trainer and sports diver, she owned and trained the bear whose sounds were recorded to supply growls voiced by the wookie Chewbacca in the equally classic “Star Wars.” She also appeared in the adventure TV series “The Fall Guy” and in “The Great Muppet Caper” movie.

“I’m so sorry to hear that she’s gone, but her legacy, as a person and as a mermaid, lives on,” said Athanason.

Susan Backlinie performs at Weeki Wachee Springs
[Courtesy photo]
Susan Backlinie performs at Weeki Wachee Springs
[Courtesy photo]

Megan Hussey
Megan Hussey
Megan Hussey is a features journalist and author who is the winner of Florida Press Association honors and a certificate of appreciation from LINCS (Family Support Domestic and Sexual Violence Prevention Task Force) and Sunrise Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Center for her newspaper coverage of these issues. She graduated cum laude from Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., with a journalism major and English/sociology minor, and previously wrote for publications that include the Pasco editions of The Tampa Tribune and Tampa Bay Times. A native of Indiana, she lives in Florida.
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