Sarasota polio survivor shares unique connection with dolphin at Clearwater Aquarium

Patricia McKnight
Sarasota Herald-Tribune

CLEARWATER — After the Sarasota community rallied to buy a polio survivor a new leg brace, the company that provided it gave her yet another surprise. 

Kathi Coleman, a widowed polio survivor who received a new leg brace from Hanger Clinic, was invited to Clearwater Marine Aquarium to meet Winter the dolphin, star of the movie “Dolphin Tale.” 

Like Coleman, Winter also has a mobility device, a prosthetic tail developed by Hanger.

Previously:Sarasota polio survivor swims a mile each day, roots for the Bucs and needs a new brace

More on Winter:Winter the disabled dolphin to get new home

Kathi Coleman poses with an early model of Winter the dolphin's prosthetic tail made by Hanger Clinic.

Winter lost her tail in 2005 after becoming entangled in a crab trap line. Two prosthetic experts from Hanger Clinic stepped in to create a prosthetic tail to help her swim better. 

“I love being here at the aquarium,” Coleman said during her visit on Wednesday. “Seeing Winter with the prosthetic, that's what’s pretty cool, that Hanger Clinic can do something for a mammal like that, as well as for humans.”

Since Winter is such a fighter, she doesn't wear her prosthetic tail all the time. She's adapted and can swim just fine without it, the aquarium staff says. She does wear it during her physical therapy sessions.

Meanwhile, Coleman needs her leg brace every day and was overjoyed when the community stepped in to help pay for it. 

Kathi Coleman visited Clearwater Marine Aquarium on Wednesday to see Winter the dolphin.

Coleman's story first appeared in the Herald-Tribune when her insurance wouldn't pay for a new $2,800 leg brace until her old one turned five years old. Coleman couldn't wait that long — she needed a new one as soon as possible. 

For a polio survivor, Coleman leads a very active lifestyle, swimming every morning. The new brace helps keep her active and moving.

After hearing her story, a local philanthropist volunteered to pay for Coleman's leg brace entirely. She also received money from former colleagues and staff at the LA Fitness gym where she swims every day. 

“I mean, it was just amazing,” she gushed. “I have enough money stored in the bank in a special account that once my new brace gets tweaked and everything, then I'll be able to order a new one when I need it.”

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Kathi Coleman watches Winter the dolphin swim at Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

Now, with the visit to see Winter, she says the story has come full circle. She relates to Winter wholeheartedly through her love to swim. She knew she wanted to meet Winter after feeling so connected.  

“Being in the water, it's the easiest thing for me,” said Coleman. “I could swim all day ... I'm always in a pool somewhere, always in the water. I think I'm wet more than I am dry.”