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Wisconsin girl’s dream to swim with dolphins — and a mermaid — comes true

Brynlie Rake, an 11-year-old girl from Wisconsin, gets face to face with Leo the bottlenose dolphin at Dolphins Plus Bayside March 14.
Brynlie Rake, an 11-year-old girl from Wisconsin, gets face to face with Leo the bottlenose dolphin at Dolphins Plus Bayside March 14.

Brynlie Rake was never really able to use her legs to walk like most people, so the water became her preferred playground at an early age.

“She just loves to swim,” her dad, Dale Rake, said. “Take her to the pool, and she won’t come out.”

Brynlie, 11, was born with spina bifida, a condition occurring before birth where the baby’s spinal cord does not close all the way. She can walk some with the help of others and leg braces, but she mostly gets around using a wheelchair.

She has much more freedom in the water.

“She thinks of herself as a mermaid swimming with the dolphins,” Dale said.

And Brynlie doesn’t just like to emulate mermaids in the water. The family lives near a cosmetology school, and she gets her hair done by the students there, who finish her style off with a few colors fit for Ariel.

“Pink and purple and blue,” Dale Rake said. “She’s been doing it for six or seven years now.”

For about a half hour on Wednesday, her dreams of being in a dolphin’s world became a reality. With the help of Make-A-Wish Foundation Southern Florida and Dolphins Plus Bayside, Brynlie, her mom, Shelly Rake and Brynlie’s cousin, Samantha Fitzgerald, got to hang out with Leo, a 13-year-old bottlenose dolphin, shake hands — or flippers — with him and even give him a kiss.

Leo was just the dolphin to welcome the family from the cold air of their hometown of Columbus, Wis., to the — relative — warmth of Key Largo. The high was in the mid-70s in the Keys Wednesday, downright balmy if you’re used to Wisconsin winters, but a little chilly to those of us who live here. But with clear skies and low humidity, no one was complaining.

Leo was born at Dolphins Plus and he loves to be around people, said trainer Tara Blaise.

“He’s really big on human interaction,” Blaise said. “That really motivates him.”

Dolphin trainer Jessica Lilli has been working with Leo since he was born and guided him as he played with Brynlie.

To top off the experience, Alasea the “mermaid” swam with Leo and gave Brynlie a gift. A “shell phone.”

“That was really fun,” Brynlie said. Asked by her mom if it was “awesome,” Brynlie responded:

“That’s the word I was looking for!”

For more information on Make-A-Wish Southern Florida, go to http://sfla.wish.org.

David Goodhue: 305-440-3204

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