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Years later, Winter the dolphin's story still inspires and helps

The real child star was a miserably shy Indiana third-grader with a misshapen left leg, a prosthesis that hurt and a future she thought couldn't possibly fit her dreams. Everything for Katrina Simpkins changed when she met Winter.

You will not see Katrina's character starring in Dolphin Tale. The child star in the movie is a boy with two good legs. Hollywood invented him, perhaps because Katrina's true story is too complex and too unfinished.

But her story represents the scores of other children like her who discovered Winter on their own and experienced a sense of belonging. Four years after Katrina met Winter, the kids just keep showing up.

Some of them are getting more than Winter's perceived empathy and affection. Those with amputations so injurious they couldn't wear a prosthesis are being made to walk with a protective material originally developed for Winter's sensitive stump.

The inventor once called it "silicone elastomer." He now calls it "Winter's Gel."

• • •

Katrina's own dolphin tale opened in 2007 with a family trip from Indiana to Disney World to reward her for surviving a half-dozen surgeries and body casts and a horrible year in the third grade.

On the way, the family made an impromptu stop at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, where Katrina discovered a baby dolphin that wore a prosthesis like she did. Katrina had found her soul mate.

That visit led to Katrina's quasi-adoption by the aquarium staff and plane trips from Indiana to Clearwater for Katrina to tell Winter's story to aquarium visitors. It also led to a new, more comfortable prosthesis for Katrina, crafted by the same designer who invented Winter's plastic tail.

More children have found Winter the same way. For the past four years, it has been one after another. They've showed up on prosthetic legs, or in wheelchairs, or sick from cancer, or hearing impaired.

• • •

Morgan Freeman plays the designer of Winter's plastic tail. His character is actually a composite of two tail makers — Kevin Carroll, a vice president for Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics Inc., and Hanger's Sarasota designer, Dan Strzempka.

"Kevin is Morgan, I'm Freeman," said Strzempka. "Kevin got Morgan Freeman's age, and I got his voice."

Strzempka — who lost a leg to a lawn mower blade as a child — concocted the recipe for Winter's Gel while trying to make a liner to protect her skin from the plastic tail.

The soft, elastic and sticky substance he cooked up turned out to be as beneficial to humans as tail-less dolphins. Strzempka tried it first on his own prosthesis — it stood up to 36 holes of golf. He next tried it on a 10-year-old girl in Oregon who had lost both legs to meningitis. Wearing a prosthesis was painful and abrasive. Winter's Gel got her out of a wheelchair.

Carroll and Strzempka have since made 50 to 60 more tails for Winter, including 16 or 17 design changes. They say thousands of people — including children and veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — now use Winter's Gel.

"Winter has helped us 20 times more than we've helped her," Carroll said. "Children are walking today who otherwise would not have walked."

• • •

The biggest changes in Katrina have been other than medical. The shy Indiana third-grader is now 12. She does flips on a trampoline. Surgeries are behind her. She has a newfound passion for horses — one in particular, a quarter horse she rides named Jade.

Jade and Winter are both magnificent animals, each impossible for her not to love. But there's a difference, she said.

"Winter will always be different," she said. "Winter shows she cares about people a lot. I love Jade, but Jade doesn't wear a prosthesis.

"Winter does."

Read more about Katrina

You can read more about Katrina and Winter in the original series, Winter's Tale, that John Barry wrote in 2008 and that was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. It's at tampabay.com/winterstale. You'll also find video of her rescue and photos of Katrina and others who wear prosthetics interacting with Winter.

Years later, Winter the dolphin's story still inspires and helps 09/15/11 [Last modified: Friday, September 16, 2011 1:56pm]

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