COLUMBIA CITY – Welcome to Hollywood, where all that glitters is often a camera trick.
But the lack of real gold doesn’t bother Katrina Simpkins. It was never about money, and she never expected any.
No, what bothers her is how Hollywood made her disappear, disappear as if she had never existed, even though she started it all.
The $12 million expansion of a Florida aquarium that was once just a renovated sewage treatment plant, the movie stars, the stories on CNN and the Today show, the thousands of DVDs and plush toys, the fancy press junkets, the big-budget 3-D movie – it all started when Katrina hobbled into Clearwater Marine Aquarium on an ill-fitting prosthetic leg and spotted Winter, a dolphin without a tail.
So when you take your kids to see Warner Bros.’ Dolphin Tale and the screen says the film was inspired by the amazing true story, that amazing true story belongs to Columbia City’s own Katrina Simpkins.
At least it did – until her parents signed a contract, giving it away.
Amazing true story
Katrina was born with PFFD – proximal femoral focal deficiency – a birth defect in which the hip end of the thighbone does not develop. The condition varies, but for Katrina, where her right knee would normally be is instead her foot.
A surgery at age 1 turned her foot backward so her ankle could act as a knee joint, and a prosthetic leg since then has made her life otherwise normal.
Or as normal as it can be when your right leg is made of plastic and steel.
But life changed for Katrina in 2007, when the Simpkins family stopped at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium while on a vacation.
Winter – just a baby then – had been found stuck in a crab trap in late 2005. She was rescued, but her injuries led to the loss of her tail.
The aquarium promoted Winter as a way to show how human carelessness can be devastating to wildlife, and when Kevin Carroll at Hangar Prosthetics heard the story, he and Dr. Dan Strzempka set out to build a prosthetic tail for Winter, though nothing like that had been tried before.
As The Journal Gazette reported in stories about Katrina in April and November 2009, that new tail for a dolphin was inspiring enough, but Winter’s effect on Katrina when they saw each other was even more profound.
In moments, she went from an introverted 8-year-old picked on by classmates, to someone who suddenly had a place in the world, who had connected with someone who understood what she was going through, even if that someone was a marine mammal in Florida.
Winter changed her.
And things changed for Winter and the aquarium, too. Soon, other children with disabilities were flocking there, then adults, then veterans maimed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
All seemed to be changed by connecting with the bottlenose that, with the help of a revolutionary prosthetic tail, had overcome its own disability.
Attendance skyrocketed. There was a $2 million renovation; in May officials announced plans for a $12 million expansion. There was the DVD – Winter: The Dolphin That Could! featuring Katrina, then came the Winter T-shirts, the Winter jewelry, and the Martina McBride video, featuring Katrina.
Now there’s Winter the Nintendo DS game, and the aquarium’s website has changed its address to seewinter.com.
In 2008, on one of her visits to Clearwater, Katrina met Strzempka, who designed a new leg for her – one that fits properly. Embedded in the plastic was her favorite Winter T-shirt.
Since then, Katrina – now 12 – has visited Winter whenever she could.
That’s Katrina’s and Winter’s story. But that is not Hollywood’s story.
In Hollywood’s version – which opens in theaters across the country Friday, Winter is rescued not by a fisherman but by a boy named Sawyer Nelson. Sawyer apparently finds the doctor who builds Winter’s tale.
In the movie, Strzempka, who is white and middle-aged, is played by Morgan Freeman, who is neither. Unlike Strzempka, Freeman does not have a prosthetic leg, and unlike Katrina, Sawyer is being raised by a single mom and also does not have a prosthetic leg, though he does introduce Winter to a war-injured relative.
In addition to Freeman, the movie stars Ashley Judd, Harry Connick Jr. and Kris Kristofferson. It’s produced by the same people who made The Blind Side.
Winter plays herself.
How does Katrina feel about being played by a boy? A boy with two working legs?
It depends on whether you get the official answer or the real answer.
I was pretty mad, Katrina said, relaxing after a day of home schooling.
But that’s not our official answer, her mother, Maria Simpkins, cuts in. Our answer is going to be that everyone has their Winter story. This happens to be a story about a boy the same age as Katrina. It’s going to help the aquarium and that’s the reason for doing this.
The Simpkins understand that Hollywood changes things, so they never expected a big-budget documentary about Katrina. But what bothers them is that they didn’t just leave her out of the story she gave them, they left her out of everything.
When the red carpet is rolled out for the world premiere in Clearwater on Wednesday, Katrina won’t be walking on it. She wasn’t invited.
When you see extras in the film, you won’t see Katrina. She wasn’t invited, or even told they were looking for extras.
When all the stars were in Clearwater last week, giving interviews to reporters from all over the world, none of the interviews was with Katrina. She wasn’t invited.
They didn’t want Katrina to be any part of it, Maria says. It was all hush-hush.
The aquarium’s website describes the movie as a major motion picture inspired by Winter’s story, not Katrina’s.
Katrina will be at the premiere, but her family has to buy tickets to the public premiere, not the one featuring Freeman, Judd, and Nathan Gamble, who plays Sawyer. The family also will pay their own way to Florida.
When the family gave the aquarium the rights to Katrina’s story, they were exclusive rights. So now that children’s book author Nancy Stewart has written about Katrina and Winter, it can’t be published because the aquarium owns the rights to Katrina’s story and has not yet relinquished them.
Maria doesn’t know when that will happen; Stewart is hoping the book will come out within the next 10 months.
It also means Katrina’s plans to write her own book about her relationship with Winter are on hold, too.
So why is Katrina’s story under lock and key?
Aquarium officials did not respond to several requests for comment. Warner Bros. also did not respond to several requests for comment.
In the meantime, Katrina is moving on: When the movie opens nationwide Friday, she’ll be busy riding in a horse show benefiting the Shriners, who helped pay for her $25,000 prosthetic leg and all the surgeries she’s had.
I’m hoping one day I’m gonna walk on the red carpet when my movie comes out, Katrina said.
‘Life is good’
Despite all the movie hoopla – the city of Clearwater commissioned a 60-foot sand sculpture of Winter to impress visiting reporters – Katrina is able to separate Hollywood from real life.
It helps that all of the madness is 1,000 miles away, but once she’s back from the Florida premiere, she’ll be back to the business of being Katrina: 5 feet of smarmy cuteness with piercing hazel eyes.
She’s no longer the little girl with baby-fat cheeks – she’s almost 13 and thinking about the rest of her life, especially the part that will take place in the next five minutes. Her love of jump rope has given way to a love of modeling and horse riding. She coos over Ruby, the family’s African gray parrot, then tries to carry on a conversation while not-so-discreetly having an online chat with her boyfriend on her Nintendo.
She had always wanted a running foot for her prosthetic leg, and now her hip and leg bones are strong enough for one, which also means she won’t have to have yet another surgery that had been planned for her middle-school years.
In addition to her running foot, she has a modeling foot, which adjusts to fit high-heeled shoes. She has a new prosthetic, this one featuring her own design: pink and maroon paisley with a silver glitter pattern overlaid.
Someday she’d like to design purses, design shoes, write a book and run her own horse ranch.
But, as with any child, growing up is bittersweet for her parents. For Maria, Katrina is becoming a good friend with whom to laugh and share stories, a bond strengthened by the hours they spend together home schooling. But she’s no longer her baby, the child who broke a leg off all her Barbie dolls so they’d look like her.
She’s no longer just 8 and hangs out with her friends on the trampoline, Maria sighs.
I’m the one who’s the spoiled brat, Katrina laughs. That’s my nickname.
She’s also happy. She has a loving family, good friends and a bright future – and she’ll be seeing Winter soon.
Life is good, she says, her smile re-creating those baby cheeks for just a moment. It’s great.