CLEARWATER — Cieran Kelso sat quietly beside Winter, gently stroking the dolphin's back as a trainer slid a liner, then Winter's famed prosthetic tail, over her stump and secured it with a strap.
The 8-year-old boy could relate.
Cieran, a double amputee whose own custom-made prosthetic swim flippers made headlines in his native England, had performed a similar process countless times himself.
But on this morning, the experience was shared in a way Cieran never expected.
Local tourism officials flew Cieran and his family from England to Florida, surprising him with a visit to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and a rare one-on-one swim with Winter, the star of the movie Dolphin Tale.
"There are some pretty raw feelings that go into seeing Cieran swim with the dolphin. His first words when he saw the film was 'Winter's disabled, just like me,' " said his father, Gary. "It's just been a dolphin on a film for a long time and now it's real. … It's just a dream come true."
Cieran, who describes himself as Winter's biggest fan, was 13 months old when he contracted meningitis, his parents said. He eventually recovered but not before both legs were amputated below the knee and he also lost the tips of most of his fingers.
While Cieran's disability hasn't stopped him from joining his friends at sports like soccer and gymnastics, he still wasn't able to swim as quickly as his peers, despite a year of swimming lessons.
So Gary, using a pair of his own swim flippers, designed prosthetic swim flippers with the help of a professional prosthetist. The flippers let Cieran whip through the water just like his idol, Winter.
"The amount of times we've watched the film is unbelievable," said Cieran's stepmother, Gemma. "Cieran relates to Winter because he sees them as the same."
Tourism officials in the United Kingdom forwarded a news article about Cieran's new flippers and his dream to visit Winter to officials at Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, the Pinellas County tourism agency. Those officials talked to aquarium officials about bringing Cieran to Clearwater to swim with Winter.
While the aquarium now grants in-tank swims to visitors every three weeks or so, aquarium chief executive officer David Yates said that wasn't the case when they first heard about Cieran. But the youngster's story so closely mirrored Winter's that Yates said he "couldn't not" make a meet-and-greet happen.
Planning for the visit took about a year, during which Cieran's parents struggled to keep the process a secret. They pretended it would be a business trip for Gary, a private airline security consultant-turned-photographer.
The family was airborne high over the Atlantic when the flight attendants announced the trip was actually a surprise visit to Winter's home.
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Beside Winter's tank at the aquarium on Aug. 16, Cieran exchanged his camouflage-patterned prosthetic legs for blue swim flippers with neon green stripes.
His father lowered him into Winter's tank. Cieran fed her a few fish, then slipped on his goggles.
For more than an hour, Winter and Cieran — at first alone with the trainer, then joined by his 5-year-old sister, Layla-Eve, and Winter's "sister," Hope — frolicked in the tank.
At trainer Cammie Zodrow's urging, he tapped Winter — the signal to raise her tail.
"Tell her 'kick, kick, kick.' There she goes!" Zodrow told a giggling Cieran as he ducked away from the splashing arcs of water.
"You guys are best friends now," she told Cieran.
His smile grew wider.
Cieran's parents held back tears as he held Winter's fin and swam beside her — human and animal furiously kicking their flippers in tandem.
With Zodrow guiding them, the pair swam backward. In circles. Dove under.
After a few laps, Cieran, impishly employing a few new hand signals he'd learned minutes earlier, giggled as Winter squealed and used her tail to splash her adoring audience.
Before exiting the pool, Cieran snuggled close to Winter and Hope, kissing both animals while posing for pictures.
Cieran said he could have swum with Winter "for a million hours" if allowed.
"It was greater than great."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or [email protected]