Maja Kazazic & Winter the Dolphin, a Beautiful Love Story

Woman Who Lost Leg Finds Inspiration from Disabled Dolphin . Before taking the plunge with Winter. I got goose bumps. Kazazic says. It was very scary because even though dolphins look cute, they’re still wild animals.  After losing her leg in a brutal war, Maja Kazazic thought she’d never walk without pain again. Then she saw the dolphin with an artificial tail, and her life changed once more. On a recent morning in Clearwater, Florida, Maja Kazazic peered down into a 73,000-gallon aquarium. For two years, she’d been watching the injured bottlenose dolphin named Winter swim around the tank. From a distance, the dolphin seemed approachable enough. Still, as Kazazic prepared to take the plunge, a little panic crept into her excitement. The young woman eased herself into the pool. Despite her fear, she felt strong wearing her new leg. She was ready to make good on a pledge from long ago. In second grade in Mostar, Yugoslavia (now part of Bosnia and Her­zegovina), Kazazic lost her five-year-old cousin, Jasmina, to leukemia. After Jasmina’s death, Kazazic vowed she would honor the little girl by swimming with a

dolphin, an animal that both girls adored. “Jasmina never got the chance [to do it],” says Kazazic, 32, “so I decided that someday I’d do it for her.” In high school, sports—soccer, basketball, tennis—were Kazazic’s passion. She planned to become a professional athlete. Then in 1993, during the Bosnian civil war, a mortar shell fired by Croat separatists exploded in the courtyard of her building. The six friends she’d been chatting with were killed; 16-year-old Kazazic was badly injured. Shrapnel riddled her left arm and both of her legs. At a makeshift hospital, her left leg was deemed beyond repair and amputated just below the knee. “There was no anesthesia,” she recalls. “They tied me down and put a piece of rubber in my mouth to bite on. I could feel everything.” Her leg wound became infected; without antibiotics, she drifted in and out of consciousness. For weeks, her parents kept vigil by her bed. British activist Sally Becker, who evacuated many children during the war, arranged to bring Kazazic to the United States for treatment. Kazazic spent nearly two years in a hospital in Cumberland, Maryland, watched over by volunteers from Veterans for Peace. (Her father had been injured in another shelling, and her mother stayed in Bosnia to care for him and Kazazic’s ten-year-old brother.) A few months in, Kazazic received her first artificial leg. Because there was so little bone left, the prosthesis was hard to fit, and with her right leg also damaged, walking was intensely painful. Nonetheless, she managed to graduate from a

local high school. At 18, she left the hospital and moved into an apartment with a fellow refugee. Her parents finally joined her in Maryland, but Kazazic was already fiercely independent. After receiving a BA in psychology at Saint Francis University in Pennsylvania, she moved to Florida’s Gulf Coast, landing a job at an insurance firm and eventually launching her own website development company. After dozens of surgeries, she was able to play the occasional round of golf or set of tennis. But she still hobbled on an imperfect prosthesis, and each activity left her in agony for days. To unwind, she’d watch the dolphins play at Clearwater Marine Aquarium, near her home in Palm Harbor. A young dolphin, Winter, who had lost her tail in a crab trap, caught Kazazic’s eye: “She swam more like a shrimp than a dolphin. I identified with her.” After one doctor’s visit, Kazazic showed up at the aquarium feeling mo­rose. Trainers were fitting Winter with a high-tech tail—a flexible steel joint covered in silicone plastic, with a gel lining designed to protect a dolphin’s delicate skin. When they were done, Winter streaked off through the water. Kazazic was mesmerized. If she can do this, there’s no way I can’t, she thought. She approached the trainers, who put her in touch with the inventors, Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics in Bethesda, Maryland. Within ten days, she had a new leg. With its soft liner and built-in microprocessor that adjusts the fit for different activities and terrains, “for the first time in almost 16 years, I was

pain-free.” Eight months later, Kazazic was ready to keep the promise she had made in honor of Jasmina. Her mother, Azra, and father, Mugdim, accompanied her to the aquarium. “After being in a war zone, this should be a piece of cake,” Kazazic said as she lowered herself into the tank. She held out a hand to Winter, who approached cautiously, then glided away. After a few minutes, the dolphin let Kazazic stroke her back. Finally, Winter nuzzled up to her shoulder. Then the two embarked on an hour-long swim around the pool. Her mother began to cry. “When Maja says she is going to do something, she always does it,” she said. When Kazazic climbed out, her parents embraced her. She would have shouted with joy had she not been aware of dolphins’ sensitivity to noise. Instead she quietly said, “I feel like I owed somebody something, and now I’ve paid my debt.” Out in the parking lot, she got into her car and whooped till she was hoarse.  –   ‘I had to learn to run again’ Goal: My goal at first was simple: Walk more than two steps without pain. Once I was able to reach that goal, I set my sights on walking a 5K, which I did in 2009. I have to raise the bar again, so my new goal is to run the 5K at today’s Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic. Why I did it: Before my injuries in the Bosnian War, I was the quintessential tomboy. I played soccer at every opportunity, on boys’ teams of course. I loved playing basketball and tennis or running just for the feel of the wind in my hair! After losing my left leg and barely saving my right, I was forced to become a spectator

of the sports I loved. Because my residual limb is very difficult to fit, walking was very painful for me. I tried not to let that slow me down, but every physical exertion, even walking a few blocks, would require days of rest afterward. Two years ago, I was inspired by Clearwater Marine Aquarium’s most famous resident, Winter, the dolphin with a prosthetic tail. Through Winter, I was fortunate enough to have found Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics, which now makes and maintains my prosthetic, and it fits like a glove. I love being physically active and fit. Now that I can walk (and run) pain-free, I am going to make the most of it! How I did it: I’ve always eaten healthfully: lean meat and fish (except for the traditional Bosnian lamb dishes at special occasions), fruits, vegetables. I don’t like sweet things, so cakes and cookies aren’t too much of a temptation for me. Most people take walking for granted. For me, every step needs my attention. I have to consciously balance over my prosthetic or risk stumbling and falling. Until last year, I had not run a step for 16 years! In order to meet my newest goal of running a 5K, I had to learn to run again. The Challenged Athletes Foundation hosts periodic running clinics for its athletes. I was lucky enough to attend last year’s clinic, held in San Diego. This year’s clinic will be in St. Petersburg on April 24. The coaches were amazing, and the running drills were challenging and tough. By the end of the clinic, I was running and feeling that wind in my hair once again. Afterward, I increased my endurance by running at least three times a week on the

treadmill and on the Dunedin Causeway. I gradually increased both my speed and distance. Believe it or not, my Wii Fit also helps me work on my balance challenges. Whether I’m swooshing through a virtual ski slalom or heading digital soccer balls, the Wii Fit helps me maintain my center of balance, which in turn helps me run more smoothly. Because it’s fun, I play a lot! Hurdles: Before getting my new prosthetic, the condition of my residual limb kept me from any meaningful exercise. While there were times when I became frustrated, I did not give up. Not being able to walk, run and play sports was not an option for me. I persisted, trying several different prosthetists and prosthetic models. I moved to Florida because I just don’t like the cold. I love looking at snow, but only for a few days. When it’s cold, windy or raining, it’s hard to get motivated to get out and run. If it’s too cold to run the causeway, I hit the treadmill at my favorite gym. Best advice: Through my years of physical therapy and rehabilitation, I learned that being consistent pays off. On days when I’m tempted to skip a workout, I remind myself of the pleasure I get from running. I try to picture myself coming across that finish line, pleasantly out of breath and with a wonderful sense of accomplishment. I lace up my running shoes, bundle up and hit the road. Pretty soon, my workout is done and my newest goal is one day closer. It also is important to have patience with yourself and your results. If you’ve been sedentary for a number of months or years, you can’t expect to run a mile the first time you try. Keep trying and be patient. Before you know it, you’ll go from walking a mile, to jogging a mile, to running a mile and more. Don’t give up; you’ll be surprised at what your mind and body can accomplish! I Made It is a regular feature highlighting individual fitness success stories and does not reflect the opinions of 4you, which encourages you to work with a trainer or research ahead of time any new fitness plans.    sources:,  – Maja Kazazic website

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