In September, Steve Mitchell danced his way into the Top Newcomer spot in the Tampa Bay Classic competition for ballroom dancing.
Mitchell, who is tall with an athletic physique and perfect posture, wowed the judges with smooth moves. And no one knew until after the awards presentation that he is an amputee.
In 1990, Mitchell tumbled out of a boat he was driving. One second he was grabbing for a boy falling overboard, the next, they both landed in the water. But the boat's propeller caught Mitchell's right leg. So many nerves and blood vessels had been damaged that a surgeon had to perform a below-the-knee amputation. For an athletic man like Mitchell, the loss could have been devastating.
"I was in the hospital for 2 1/2 weeks and home for two more," said Mitchell. "I heard comments from people who said 'poor Steve.' They meant well but said I'd never be able to do the things I used to do. It was depressing. Returning to my sales job was my first attempt at a normal routine."
Six months after Mitchell received his first prosthetic leg, he returned to the gym. While he focused on his upper body, exercise helped him rebuild strength and confidence.
"I realized you can do anything if you set your mind to it," he said. "It was a difficult process at first, until I built my body back up. Today, I'm in the best shape of my life."
Mitchell gets a new prosthetic leg every five or so years. The one he wears now was created by Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics, the company that built Winter the dolphin's tail. And Mitchell works with personal trainer Jean Oriol, who understands the struggle to come back. He, too, suffered serious injuries in an accident and has worked to build his body into top shape.
"When I first met Steve, his form and posture were out of whack," said Oriol. "We did stability training. I put the focus on strength, flexibility and endurance. A prosthesis puts a lot of pressure on the knees and on nerves and a lot of people develop a limp. Steve's learned how to shift his weight for better stability."
Mitchell glides across the floor as if he is on ice skates when he practices the Tennessee Waltz with Marina Laca, his dance instructor and performance partner. Laca, 28, and her permanent dance partner and husband, Martin, teach at 1st Dance Studio on 66th Street in St. Petersburg.
"He is an inspiration," Laca said. "I use him as an example to my other students. He never gives up. When a thing looks difficult, he still gives it a chance and does his best."
Dancing and working with a personal trainer weren't Mitchell's idea. His wife, Debbie, worked with both Laca and Oriol first.
"I came in kicking and screaming," said Mitchell, 49. "We've been married 22 years, but only a year when the accident happened. She's my best friend."
Now, besides building his core three days a week with Oriol, Mitchell has learned American-style ballroom dancing, mambo, rumba, waltz, cha-cha and swing dancing from Laca.
But the competition in September was another challenge.
"I was very nervous going into the dance competition," he said. "And very surprised when I won."
And while Mitchell had been working out at a gym and exercising on his own, it wasn't his disability that brought him to dance class or a personal trainer last summer. It was business, or a lack of it. He's president of a recreational vehicle company that took a big hit in the economic downturn.
"I was looking for stress relief," said Mitchell. "Working out and dancing both help build my core and were the best things I could have done. They've helped me work toward becoming an example for other people with physical disabilities. I want people, young or older, to know not to let physical disabilities stop them from doing whatever they want. They can live a full and active life. A disability changes your life, but doesn't end it."