Winter is coming
October 12, 2012
She runs for Dad. Along the still-golden trails of Park City, through Maasai villages in Kenya, in Olympic-level triathlons, she runs for Dad.
She’s only 13, but has been the driving force in helping to raise over $400,000 in honor of Dad. Dad was taken too young by a vicious form of prostate cancer — sarcomatoid carcinoma — which left Winter Vinecki, the second of four children in the Vinecki family, dealing with the never-ending loss of her father.
On March 12, 2009, Michael Vinecki, 40, passed away following a 10-month battle with the disease. But there isn’t a day that goes by in which Winter doesn’t think of Dad. Whether she’s in triathlon training, on an afternoon jog or practicing her aerials with her new club, Park City’s FLY Freestyle, Winter thinks about Dad.
"That’s truly the bottom line for everything and that’s why she wants to win," said Dawn Estelle, Winter’s mother. "Everyone wants to know about this girl. And for an athlete to be fueled by the loss of her dad, it gives her such a huge edge and she uses all that anger, grief and all those emotions, and puts it into her sports."
"Winter will tell you her dad died for a reason and she’s just following the pathway that was laid out before her."
‘I loved it’
That pathway is a winding one.
Growing up in Gaylord, Mich., Winter was attracted to the art of running and the addiction of competition. Her mother, Dawn, grew up competing as a triathlete and still competes, so it was only natural for Winter to follow in Mom’s footsteps.
She competed in her first triathlon at the age of five. Already a talented downhill skier, Winter began running and, according to Estelle, completed her first-ever 5K in 33 minutes.
"When she was 5 years old, I knew she was different," Estelle explained. "I knew she was gifted, but to what extent, you don’t know until the years roll by. At age nine, she was doing Olympic-distance triathlons under four hours. It was then that I knew we were headed in a whole different direction. At age nine, she asked me, ‘Has anyone ever done a Summer and Winter Olympics?’ I told her there have been a few people and she said, ‘Good, because that’s what I want to do is do both Olympics.’"
And, at age 13, she’s on her way.
Winter is now a Park City resident, having been accepted onto the Olympic Development Team with FLY Freestyle after earning a scholarship to the program following an Olympic recruitment camp in June. She was initially attracted to aerials when she was awarded the ANNIKA Inspiration Award by the Women’s Sports Foundation in New York City in October 2011. It was there she met Park City resident and Olympic aerialist Emily Cook and was introduced to giving the sport a whirl.
"Emily talked to her coaches and they invited me to come to a recruitment camp," said Winter. "That’s when I first tried aerials. It was really different from downhill racing. A lot of the girls (in downhill) weighed twice as much as I did, so that was hard for me to place well because of my weight, because I’m so small. But I think I really found my niche in aerials — it’s one of those things where you either hate it when you first go off that jump or you love it, and I loved it."
However, there was one issue: the Vinecki family had moved to Salem, Ore., and, for Winter to be part of FLY Freestyle and work on her aerials, she’d have to find a place to live in Park City.
It takes a village
In competitive triathlons around the country, Winter raced with two kids whose uncle happened to be a Park City resident. Drew and Christina Izzo have lived in Park City for the last 10 years. They have an 11-year-old son and a nine-year-old daughter and were facing the prospect of suddenly having their first teen of the family.
"It was funny, because my brother called me and said, ‘You’ve got to meet this girl, she needs a place to live in Park City and she’s just an amazing kid,’" Drew Izzo explained. "I was a bit shocked. I thought, ‘Wow, to take on another kid is a pretty significant thing,’ but after we met her, it was a really easy decision. She’s just such a cool kid."
Winter has been living with the Izzos for the last two months and Christina Izzo said her stay with the family is "indefinite" as long as she chooses to continue to chase her Olympic dreams.
"She’s always happy and positive," Izzo said. "It’s infectious. Immediately, she was part of our family."
Estelle, Winter’s mother, said in order for her only daughter to reach the mountaintop, she will need all the help she can get.
"It’s a huge relief, because being an Olympic-level athlete like Winter is requires so much training," she said. "Last year I was spending 3 to 4 hours a day getting her to practices, driving every weekend getting her to Mt. Bachelor. Last year she lived with a family in Bend as her ski intensity ramped up. It takes a village to help me and help Winter reach her dreams."
7 on 7
When Winter was eight, she was competing in Clearwater, Fla., at an IronGirl 10K race and the event’s website allowed competitors to start a fundraising page for any platform they chose. At the time, she chose childhood obesity. When her father was diagnosed with prostate cancer on his 40th birthday, "that’s when I definitely knew I had to switch it," she said. Dad started running and competing in marathons just before he was diagnosed, Winter said, and he was only able to get about 50 miles on his brand-new bike.
And that drives Winter.
Now, in five short years, TeamWinter.org has raised close to a half-million dollars in support of prostate cancer research.
"It’s not intimidating, but I definitely wouldn’t have ever imagined it would become this huge," she said. "When I first started Team Winter, I had a fundraising goal of $10,000. So now I’m way past that amount. It’s just really exciting for me, to know I’m able to raise so much money to help save lives. There are so many families who have contacted us to tell us that their dad or their husband was diagnosed with cancer, but because of me, they got diagnosed and were able to catch it in time."
On top of that, she’s aiming to write her name into the Guinness Book of World Records. Following her first Olympic-distance triathlon at age nine, she sat on her couch and opened up the popular record book.
"I was kind of thinking, ‘What am I going to do next?’ she explained. "So I was sitting on my couch at my house and was flipping through the pages of a Guinness Book of World Records and I saw the youngest person to do a marathon on all seven continents."
At the time it was a 27-year-old male, but the record is now held by a 15-year-old female.
Winter’s goal is to eclipse that record by almost a year when November 2013 rolls around. Her first race was in Eugene, Ore., in April and she finished in three hours and 45 minutes. During the last week of September, Winter and Dawn and others flew to Kenya to participate in the Amazing Maasai Marathon. At an altitude of 7,000 feet, she finished in four hours and four minutes, good enough for third place among all female entrants.
Next up is Antarctica in March, the Galapagos Islands in June and hopefully the Gold Coast in Australia in July. Asia is still in the works. The plan is to finish the seventh and final marathon in Athens, Greece, in November 2013.
"We love her like our own kid and we miss her when she goes away," said Drew Izzo, "so I have agreed to go participate in some of those events with her. We’re all going to the Galapagos marathon in June and running it with her. It’s funny, she’s 13 and I’m 43 and we run similar marathon times. I think we’re good training partners. It’s really good to have somebody right there with similar ability."
Power of youth
The grind rarely gets to Winter, as evidenced by her constant smile and jovial manner, but Estelle said as winter approaches and her online high school work picks up, being able to juggle homework, aerials competitions and marathon training could pose as a significant challenge.
"I know she puts a lot of weight on her shoulders and we’re starting to see that now. With so many different things pulling her in so many different directions, with so many public speaking gigs at schools and sports-wise and being a two-time national champion in triathlon, plus trying to complete online high school, she’s learned she’s not going to be able to give everything her all," Estelle said. "Now she knows she’s gunning for the Winter Olympics, and to get all that training in and getting great grades, she’s doing fine with all of it. I honestly don’t know how she deals with everything that she deals with. I’m amazed. She’s got the power of youth behind her. She’s probably the happiest person in the world and kids don’t let stress get to them."
Winter’s first aerials competition with FLY Freestyle is slated for Wednesday, Dec. 19, and her juggling act will start to take on new meaning when her aspirations for the 2018 Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, collide with her goal to conquer each continent across the globe.
Estelle said she is planning on bringing the family out for that first aerials competition here in Park City, but said having her only daughter chase the dream so far away is "bittersweet."
"It’s really tough for us to let her go," she said. "I text her all day long. We talk on the phone and all the different ways of communication makes it a lot easier. We miss her. It’s so strange not having her as part of our everyday family life."
Winter agreed with Mom, but said Dad would want her to follow her dreams to the end of the earth. And at age 13, she’s doing exactly that.