It was May 1st, 2011. I was standing on the starting line of the Eugene Half Marathon beside a small, athletic-looking pre-teen with a neat blonde braid. When the gun went off, so did she. A man running beside me uttered between strides, “You’ll never see that one again! Most kids sprint and fade, but she’s tough!”
Tough she is. Her name is Winter Vinecki, and on April 29th, 2012, she will embark upon her quest to be the youngest person to ever complete a full marathon on every continent. But Winter isn’t doing this just to hold a world record, which she will upon successful completion; she is competing for a cause and racing to raise money and awareness for prostate cancer, the disease that took her father on March 12, 2009.
Winter has always been a determined athlete who wanted to find a way to give back. At the age of five, she discovered that she was a talented triathlete, and as she grew older, she wanted to race to raise money for the childhood obesity epidemic. When her father, Michael Vinecki, was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of prostate cancer, she knew what her mission would be: To stomp out prostate cancer so that other families wouldn’t have to go through what her family did.
In 2008, Winter founded Team Winter™ with the goal of raising $10,000 for prostate cancer research. Winter’s fundraising efforts have far surpassed what she thought was possible; her non-profit organization has raised over $300,000 to date. Winter has been publicly recognized for her outstanding contributions to cancer research on many occasions; one of the more recent and notable awards she received was the ANNIKA Inspiration Award, presented by the Women’s Sports Foundation. During this eventful night, Winter and her mother, Dr. Dawn Estelle, traveled from their residence in Salem, Oregon to New York, where they were able to mingle with some of the world’s best female athletes, all of whom honored Winter for being an exceptional young female athlete.
Winter also serves as the Ironkids Ambassador, traveling around the country during the summer months to promote her cause and the sport of triathlon. While at each location, not only does Winter compete; she also keeps busy by selling Team Winter™ gear at her race expo booth, and encouraging kids to race for more than themselves. Winter has also launched the Winter Inspirational Talk Series, which brings her to schools around the nation where she can spread her message of living a healthy, active, and positive lifestyle while promoting prostate cancer awareness.
While many people recognize that what Winter has already accomplished at the young age of 13 is amazing, they don’t often see what it takes to be Winter Vinecki, the 8th grade, non-profit founding multi-sport athlete. I was fortunate enough to get Winter to stop moving for a full thirty minutes so that we could talk over Skype about her training schedule and her upcoming World Marathon Tour, which will begin right where I first met her one year ago: The starting line of the Eugene Marathon.
Winter got her start in athletics in the sport of triathlon, but her talents and passions run much deeper than where she began. She found early success in the sport of running, breaking an hour in the 10k for the first time with her father by her side when she was around seven years old. She ran an impressive 1 hour, 38 minutes in the Eugene Half-Marathon in 2011, even stopping to lose her breakfast, a first for her, about six miles in. She won the female 19 & under division at the age of 12 by over a minute at that race.
In addition to running, Winter is an expert skier. “I love to downhill ski race and train in the gates. My favorite skiing races are the Super G and other speed events,” she says with an excited grin. In fact, Winter spends many of the colder months training on the slopes in Bend, Oregon, and living at her ski coach’s home. She sees her own family, which includes her mother and three brothers, Yukon (9th grade), Magnum (5th grade), and Ruger (4th grade) most weekends, but with technology like Skype, she still feels connected to them on a daily basis. During the summer months, she and her brothers spend time with their extended family in Michigan, where they once lived before Michael’s passing.
Winter is also very academically gifted. This past school year, she was admitted to Stanford University’s online high school for students in grades 7-12 who are looking for an alternative to the typical educational setting. With Winter’s busy schedule, her mother had been looking for an online program, but wanted to be sure that it was credible and would prepare her for the future. When she stumbled upon Stanford’s program, she found that it would be a great fit. Each year, 40 students are admitted after taking placement exams, IQ tests, and gathering letters of recommendation; a process that sounds daunting to most middle and high school students.
Most of the students who attend Winter’s online school are other exceptional young people who are already accomplished athletes, musicians, actors, and business owners. Someday, she hopes to be admitted to Stanford University as an undergraduate student. She knows that triathlon is not currently an NCAA-recognized sport, but she would be happy to compete in track and field and cross country. When I asked her if she has maintained amateur status for eligibility purposes while gathering sponsors via Team Winter™, she replied with exactly what you might expect of a 13-year-old: “Um, you’re going to have to ask my mom about that one!”
During triathlon season, a typical week in the life of Winter Vinecki looks a bit like this: Five swim sessions, each lasting one to two hours, three trips out on her road bike, and five runs. She aims for roughly nine hours of sleep each night to be sure that she is well-rested. Currently, with her first marathon on the horizon, she is running about 35 miles per week. Winter recently teamed up with Mark Hadley, a running coach out of North Carolina, who has guided his own teenage daughter, Alana Hadley, to an incredibly quick 1:16 half-marathon. Alana currently runs about 70-75 miles per week as a high school freshman.
The Hadleys and the Vineckis have not found success without the voiced opinion of the occasional skeptic. Many people think that young girls should not be running high mileage for fear of stunting their growth or peaking too early. While many may cringe at the thought of a 13-year-old, five-foot-nothing girl running seven marathons before her 15th birthday, recent research has shown that high mileage is no worse for a youngster than it is for an adult.
In June of 2011, Running Times magazine published an article titled, “Should Kids Run Long?” (Read the full article here) which quotes Cathy Fieseler, M.D., a sports physician on the board of directors of the American Medical Athletic Association. Fieseler states, “You’ll find no data that kids will tear up ligaments, destroy cartilage, or damage growth plates with high mileage. You don’t need to put a top limit on it.”
Winter understands that some people expect her to burn out at an early age after dedicating so much of her young life to athletics. Her perspective is refreshing and genuine when she states, “I keep good nutrition and I have some of the best coaches in the world. I love what I do! If I get burned out, it’s not the end of the world, because I have so many things that I love to fall back on. I enjoy rock climbing and basketball. I want to continue with Team Winter™ and someday start a clothing line for kids.”
Without a doubt, Winter will continue to find success in whatever path she chooses. For now, that path will allow her to travel around the world, spreading her very important message, and hopefully stomping out cancer for good. Her first goal is to complete the Eugene Marathon in less than four hours. In the 2011 Eugene Marathon, only ten females 19 & under (all of them much closer to 19 than 13) finished the race, with only two girls running sub-4 hours. Winter will run the marathon with her mother, who has completed multiple Ironman Triathlons herself while raising four children and working as a doctor. Determination obviously runs in the family!
After Eugene, Winter will head to Kenya in September of 2012 to run in the Amazing Maasai Ultra, which helps fund education for girls in that country. As for marathons three through seven, they are still to be finalized. Winter has run into a few roadblocks with race directors because of her young age. In most cases, marathons require that athletes be 18 years of age to participate, which can be frustrating to an ambitious athlete. Regardless, Winter will have the support of many, including Michael, whom she says she feels close to when she sees the finish line in sight.
I asked Winter what she thinks that her dad would say to her now if he could. She paused for a moment in thought, then answered with a smile, “I don’t think my dad would be surprised about what I’ve done, because he’s known what I was capable of, but I think he would be proud.”
Clearly, Michael Vinecki has left his daughter with what I imagine every parent would want their child to know: That he has confidence in her potential and he knows that she will change the world. Indeed, she will.
If you would like to support Team Winter™ with a charitable donation, please visit her website, beautifully created by her older brother, Yukon.