Tale of tail excites maker

Dan Strzempka doesn’t look like Morgan Freeman, but he’s flattered the acting legend is bringing his story to life on the big screen.

“It’s an honor; he’s one of my favorite actors. He’s one of the best actors of all time, so it’s just a little intimidating,” Strzempka said Wednesday in the laboratory at Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics in Sarasota.

Though the character’s name has been changed, Strzempka is a big part of the coming movie “Dolphin Tale.”

Winter the dolphin’s story is well-known in the Tampa Bay area. The bottlenose dolphin was rescued during the winter of 2005 and brought to Clearwater Marine Aquarium. She had lost her tail, which was caught in a crab trap.

That’s where Strzempka comes in.

A prosthetic tail never had been made for a dolphin. But Strzempka was eager to give it a try. The prosthetic clinician grew up in Sarasota and always has admired dolphins. And he understands what it’s like to lose a limb. His leg was amputated above the knee after a lawn mower accident when he was 4 years old.

Fashioning a dolphin’s tail was challenging, Strzempka said. He first developed a stretchy gel liner to go over the mammal’s skin. Then the process of building a tail began. So far, there have been 16 revisions.

Strzempka said Winter took to her new tail fin right away.

“She’s been the dream patient,” he said. “Everything we’ve done she hasn’t rejected it.”

Countless amputees have heard Winter’s story. Strzempka often brings patients to meet her and see the prosthetic tail.

“I’ve had kids and hardened veterans melt in front of her and just get totally inspired by her,” he said.

Now the technology developed to help the dolphin is helping humans, too.

Dana Pounds called it a life-changer. Pounds wears a stretchy gel liner similar to Winter’s. It cushions her leg when she wears her prosthesis. She says it’s like a “little cloud” between her skin and the hard material of the socket.

Pounds said she feels a connection to Winter. She teaches marine science, but speaks with students about her leg, too. Her leg is called a “C” leg. The “C” stands for computer, because the joint has a chip inside to help her walk.

“I joke with the kids that it stands for a ‘sea’ leg, like an ocean leg, but that’s the last place in the world it wants to go,” she said.

Pounds has met Winter, and said she is thankful the dolphin’s story has touched so many lives.

And although Strzempka developed the prosthesis, he gave the credit to Winter.

“She’s helped us more than we could ever come close to helping her,” he said. “It’s real, and it’s incredible.”

Strzempka can’t wait to see the movie based on Winter’s life — and his own. He plans to attend a preview Saturday. His wife and children are flying to Hollywood with him to see the film when it opens Sept. 23.

Source: TBO

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