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  1. Life & Culture

Winter the dolphin’s legacy: A role model for kids with disabilities

To people who feel like they’re different, Winter was much more than the star of the Dolphin Tale movie.
Aidan Schmitz who was 10 at the time, prepares to give Winter a fish as trainer Abby Stone directs the dolphin at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in 2011. Aidan has Fibular Hemimelia and was born with only one bone in her lower leg. As a result, she had to have her foot amputated and now has a prosthetic leg.
Aidan Schmitz who was 10 at the time, prepares to give Winter a fish as trainer Abby Stone directs the dolphin at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in 2011. Aidan has Fibular Hemimelia and was born with only one bone in her lower leg. As a result, she had to have her foot amputated and now has a prosthetic leg. [ Times (2011) ]
Published Nov. 12
Updated Nov. 13

Joey Gillespie has known he wanted to be a marine biologist since he was 3, but that still didn’t make it easy for him to visit the Clearwater Marine Aquarium as a kid.

As someone with high-functioning Asperger’s syndrome, he can struggle in situations with lots of people or noise — the perfect descriptors for the tourist-filled viewing area in front of Winter the dolphin’s tank. But when he saw Winter in 2015, the then-10-year-old locked eyes with her, and said they kept constant eye contact for 20 minutes.

“Winter gave me the confidence to do things I don’t usually do, and just enjoy life,” said Gillespie, who lives in Valrico and is now 17. He said Winter made him feel understood and hopeful for the first time.

Joey Gillespie, 10, and his sister Taylor, 7, pose holding Winter's prosthetic tail at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium when the family visited in 2015.
Joey Gillespie, 10, and his sister Taylor, 7, pose holding Winter's prosthetic tail at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium when the family visited in 2015. [ Courtesy of Ariel Raymond ]

He became more outgoing, giving class presentations and even going up to strangers to tell them about the horrors of shark-finning and other oceanic topics. Doctors had warned his mother not to expect him to pass ninth grade. He’s now preparing to go to college. He’s been working to earn his scuba certification, so he could dive with Winter.

Then the family saw the news that she had died.

“He’s proven everybody wrong,” Gillespie’s mother, Ariel Raymond, said Friday through tears. “I owe that to Winter.”

Winter the dolphin was a local celebrity, a tourism boon and the star of the movie Dolphin Tale — but to people who feel like they’re different, especially children with disabilities, she was a role model of how to persevere.

Winter, who died Thursday while being prepared for surgery to treat an intestinal blockage, lived almost her entire life without her tail. She came to the aquarium in December 2005, at the age of 2 months, after an angler found her bleeding and tangled in a crab trap in the shallows north of Cape Canaveral. Within days, she lost her badly injured tail — but she survived.

Aidan Schmitz of St. Petersburg has been regularly visiting Winter since she was young. She was born with only one bone in her left lower leg, causing it to be amputated when she was a toddler.

As a kid, her amputation made her feel constantly alone. Then she met Winter.

“If Winter can get a prosthetic tail and swim around just like the other dolphins,” Schmitz thought, “I can stand and walk around like any other kid can.”

When she was 7, Schmitz was featured in the St. Petersburg Timesoriginal series about Winter. She also said she was in the bonus features of the Dolphin Tale movie and an extra in the sequel.

Schmitz is now 20 and attends Full Sail University in Winter Park.

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Aidan Schmitz, 20
Aidan Schmitz, 20 [ Courtesy of Tricia Schmitz ]

She recently found an old USB flash drive in the shape of Winter. She’s going to make it into her own personal memorial of the dolphin who waved her flipper at her.

“It’s like losing a best friend,” Schmitz said.

The prosthetists who developed Winter’s new tail have marveled at the connections between the dolphin and people with physical disabilities, severe injuries or developmental delays. They have seen the locked eyes at the aquarium. They’ve gotten calls from people in Ireland, Greece and Egypt who wanted the clinic’s help, because it had helped Winter. They worked with children who felt less alone because they’d met Winter in person or watched the movies.

Dan Strzempka, a Sarasota-based clinic manager for the Hanger Clinic for prosthetics and orthotics, recalled with a laugh that he nearly fell out of his seat when Kevin Carroll, a vice president at Hangar, suggested they build a tail for the dolphin he’d heard about on a radio segment.

An early challenge came in developing the prosthetic liner: It had to hold up in the water without being restrictive and to stick to Winter’s skin without overheating and damaging it. They developed a trial version with a chemical engineer. Then Strzempka offered to be the guinea pig.

A prosthetic user since age 4, when he lost a leg in a lawn mower accident, Strzempka knew the sweaty, slippery discomfort of his prosthesis after a round of golf in the Florida heat, and the dread of the first days of breaking in a new liner. Wearing Winter’s liner, he was amazed: The stickiness held up in the humidity, and the elasticity made it immediately comfortable.

“I started thinking of all the patients I could try it on,” he said.

Thousands of people now wear the prosthetic liners trademarked by Hanger as WintersGel, Carroll estimated.

“That’s something Winter has given back to society,” Carroll said. But, he added: “What she has given back in technology, she has quadrupled that in emotional support.”

Strzempka said it’s been rewarding to be able to watch one patient’s story reverberate ever outward for nearly 15 years.

“That’s what’s kind of making me feel better today,” he said Friday. “The impact’s going to go on way past when I’m gone, when Kevin’s gone.”

Times engagement editor Ashley Dye contributed to this report.