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Confident and driven

Severe injuries in her war-ravaged homeland didn't keep her from achieving.

Published July 26, 2007

[Times photo: Ted McLaren]
Maja Kazazic, 30, a Bosnian injured in the war by a Croatian bomb (when she was 16), has a prosthetic leg and is learning to windsurf at Fred Howard Park in Tarpon Springs.

With gentle breezes to pat her sail, Maja Kazazic, 30, took off on a windsurfing board.

It was only her fourth lesson, but she made it look easy.

Never mind that she is a below-the-knee amputee, the victim of a 1993 bombing during the Bosnian war.

"Our bodies and our minds are stronger than we give them credit for," she said, standing in the shallow, tepid waters off the beach at Fred Howard Park in Tarpon Springs on Saturday. "There's really nothing I can't, or probably won't, do."

Except drugs and parachuting from a plane, she added.

Her instructor, Bruce Snyder marveled.

"She's doing great," he said. "She's confident and driven."

Snyder, a professional animator and designer, gives windsurfing lessons at the beach at Fred Howard Park during his free time. He and other windsurfing gurus teach to spread their love of the sport and raise money for the recreational area. Over the past few years, Snyder's nonprofit Friends of Howard Park has raised thousands of dollars for palm trees and beach re-nourishment programs.

Snyder said the north end of the beach is the perfect locale for windsurfers because it is not polluted and is too shallow for boats. He uses a training rig for students, which is lighter, wider and more stable than conventional boards.

"Wow," he said as he watched Kazazic. "That move she just made, a jibe, a sailing turn took us three summers to learn. Of course, we didn't have the (training) board, an instructor, or Fred Howard Park."

Snyder has taught 7-year-olds to 70-year-olds and those with physical and mental disabilities. He said anyone could learn.

"Every one has different challenges," he said. "The number one thing is, you have to want it, and Maya really wants it."

Burning pain

It was June 1993 in Mostar, Bosnia; Kazazic was 16 and restless.

She and her family spent most of their time in the basement of an apartment building, where they hid from bombs, snipers and civil warfare between the Serbs, the Croats, and the Bosnians.

They drank water from a nearby river, made coffee from chickpeas and survived on pigeon soup. At one point, the teen's pet rabbit, Bugs, became dinner.

Despite her parents' repeated warnings not to venture outside their apartment, Kazazic occasionally did so to escape the confinement and boredom of her life.

On this day, she grabbed a piece of bread and ran into the courtyard to meet six friends.

The next thing she knew, a blast from a vinegar and salt-laden bomb knocked her to the ground. She remembers choking on smoke. When it cleared, she couldn't move.

"I saw the body parts of my friends in front of me," she said. All six died.

She remembers asking her father, a nurse, if she would play her beloved sport, soccer, again. He reassured her it would only be a couple of weeks. Then she blacked out.

She was taken to a makeshift hospital in a basement, where there was no doctor, antibiotics, anesthesia or painkillers.

A week later, a dentist removed her leg with a hacksaw. "I held my blue teddy bear and bit down on it," she recalled. "I remember it was a horrible, horrible burning pain."

The temperature in the Bosnian city sometimes reached 110 degrees, she said. There was no air conditioning, electricity or running water.

In the mornings and the evenings, when it was cooler, the dentist would cut infected tissue from her feverish body.

"Things were about as low as you could get," she said. "It was our sense of humor that got us through."

Eventually, she was rescued by a humanitarian convoy and flown to a hospital in Cumberland, Md. She arrived in the United States wearing a T-shirt and underwear.

Role model

Large scars cover much of Kazazic's body and shrapnel pierces through her skin like tiny steel whiskers. She wears a $27,000 prosthetic leg on her remaining left leg and her right foot dangles from "drop foot" syndrome.

"My good leg is my prosthetic leg," she said.

To Kazazic, the war wounds are an inconvenient reality. "I think it's an annoying nuisance, but nothing that will slow me down," she said. She plays tennis and golf, swims, and does yoga.

The Palm Harbor resident speaks perfect English and owns Vela Solutions, a Web technologies business with offices in Palm Harbor and India. Plans for offices in Sweden and Norway are under way.

She strives to be a positive role model for other amputees and continues to work with professionals in hopes of making prosthetic devices more sports friendly. She is opening a free Web community at to bring orthotics and prosthetics professionals and patients together.

"The technology is good, but it needs to be improved so everyone can enjoy sports and lead an active life," she said. "Hopefully this will result in some innovative products."

Windsurfing lessons

Friends of Howard Park give windsurfing lessons by appointment. The cost is $50 an hour and proceeds benefit the park. Call (727) 938-5107 or e-mail Bruce Snyder at

[Last modified July 26, 2007, 08:14:54]

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