CLEARWATER — Brock Mealer is a 26-year-old Ohio man who walks with the help of two canes despite being paralyzed three years ago in a horrific Christmas Eve traffic crash.
He was given a 1 percent chance of ever walking again.
On Wednesday, he met someone else who has overcome big odds to survive and thrive: Winter the dolphin, who lost her tail in a crab trap but now swims with a prosthetic tail.
Mealer, of Wauseon, Ohio, was a guest Wednesday at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, where he got up close and personal with the dolphin that has been an inspiration to children and adults with medical conditions or handicaps.
Mealer slipped into a wet suit and with a little help, sat on a platform inside the tank to see, touch, feed and have a bit of fun with Winter.
"I know dolphins are such smart animals," Mealer said. "I thought at some time Winter must have wondered if she'd make it or if she was going to die."
Mealer admits he knows the feeling.
He felt a connection the moment he watched video of Winter, who lost her mother and her tail after being caught in a crab trap line on Florida's east coast in 2005. She was brought to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium for rehabilitation and ultimately to be fitted with the prosthetic tail.
Mealer lost his father, David, and the ability to walk when a 90-year-old driver ran a stop sign and crashed into his family's SUV. Mealer was left paralyzed from the waist down.
"The doctor operated on me for 8 1/2 hours," Mealer said. "I have a titanium plate in my wrist, titanium and 17 screws in my back. Faith in God and constant support from my family and friends got me through. I believed I could walk again knowing they'd always believed I could."
Both the man and the dolphin have endured countless hours of physical therapy and rehabilitation. Each also has become an inspiration.
Winter, with her prosthetic tail, is the star of Dolphin Tale, a major motion picture including big name stars Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd that tells her story of survival.
Mealer has begun to walk and make news of his own.
Because his brother, Elliott, plays football at the University of Michigan, the Wolverines' strength and conditioning coaches have worked relentlessly with Mealer to enable him to beat the overwhelming odds and walk again.
He did so in a big way Sept. 4 when, with the assistance of his two canes, he led the Wolverines onto the field during the team's home opener as cheers rose from the crowd of more than 113,000.
"To know so many people supported me felt incredible," Mealer said. "When Coach (Rich) Rodriguez gave me the goal (last spring) of leading the team onto the field, I wasn't sure I could make it. Walking onto that field was a great moment. A celebrated victory for my family."
Mealer's mother, Shelly, and Elliott, an offensive lineman, walked beside him. Elliott not only lost his father in the accident, but his girlfriend, Hollis Richer, 17.
Mealer's story came to the attention of Tom Orr, past board chairman of the aquarium who also happens to be a Michigan fan. He made contact with Mealer through Facebook and later met him when Michigan hosted Iowa earlier this year.
He told Mealer about Winter and invited him to see the dolphin if he got to Florida.
Bingo. It just so happened that he was coming to Jacksonville to see his brother play in the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville on Friday. So he decided to make a side trip to Clearwater. "It worked out that I could see Winter," he said.
Winter strutted her stuff for him too, waving at him and splashing him and the trainers.
The 80,000-gallon, 9-foot deep tank, in which 5-year-old Winter and her 35-year-old adopted dolphin mother Panama swim, was originally created as part of the Dolphin Tale movie set.
"Normally the production crew would create a temporary set, then tear it down and leave town, but Alcon Entertainment and Warner Brothers allowed us to keep the tank," said David Yates, the aquarium's CEO. "They paid two-thirds of the $400,000 cost. We paid the rest. Now we have a permanent structure to use for perpetuity."
The aquarium was closed to the public for two months for filming of the 3D movie. It reopened Dec. 15.
"The major underwater scenes in the movie were shot in this tank," Yates said. "When we filmed out here, we filmed through the windows, actually in the water with 3D cameras and above the water."
When Mealer left Winter's tank, he wore a big grin.
"There was something about looking into her eyes," he said. "That was awesome."