Winter Vinecki chasing Olympic dreams and her father’s spirit

Winter Vinecki has spent more than half her life chasing his spirit around the world.

She has run marathons on seven continents trying to do her late father Michael proud. She ran across Antarctica and up Machu Picchu at 14, and later skied the Alps and the Rockies, driven by his memory and the determination to spare other families the pain she and her family endured.

She has refused to be deterred by a torn ACL or seven facial fractures that required reconstructive surgery. After the surgery, a bandage covered the right side of her face.

“NEVER GIVE IN,” her mother wrote on it, summing up her daughter.

And on Sunday evening, the journey and Michael’s spirit will lead Vinecki, 23, to the top of Genting Snow Park A&M Stadium, in front of her the Olympic Games women’s aerials competition and the stage she has dreamed of since she was 9.

Vinecki has come to the Beijing Olympics to not only chase a medal but to use the Games’ global stage as an opportunity to raise awareness for prostate cancer.

Team Winter (, a nonprofit foundation Vinecki and her mother, Dr. Dawn Estelle, set up when Winter was 9, has raised more than $500,000 for prostate cancer research.

“I’ve always dreamed of going to the Olympics and competing on the biggest stage in the world,” she said. “When I was younger, it was always more gratifying knowing that I was crossing the finishing line not just for myself but for a cause. So it’s really amazing knowing that I’m out there raising awareness for prostate cancer, but in general inspiring kids and adults to do something for a cause so it’s not just for themselves.”

Honoring her dad

The feeling of the loss never goes away.

“Sometimes it feels like a lifetime ago that he was here and passed away,” Vinecki said, “and other times it feels just like yesterday.”

Michael Vinecki was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of prostate cancer on his 40th birthday. Winter, the second of his and Estelle’s four children, was just 9.

The family lived in the small town of Gaylord, Michigan, about an hour south of the Mackinac Bridge that connects the state’s two peninsulas, on 200 acres next her grandparents’ 2,000-acre potato and carrot farm.

For years, Winter Vinecki thought her name was the result of her December birthdate. Later she learned it was because Estelle “thought winter was the most beautiful season.” If her older brother, Yukon, had been born a girl, he would have been named Winter.

“And his birthday is in May,” Vinecki said.

Estelle was a runner and triathlete. Trips to her races were family adventures. A race in Canada had a kids’ event and Vinecki hopped in. Before long, she was joining her mother in road races. She was 5 when she did her first triathlon.

The mother and daughter were competing in a race in Florida that offered participants an opportunity to raise money for a cause of their choosing. Vinecki chose childhood obesity. She decided to set up Team Winter to raise money and awareness for the issue after returning to Michigan.

Michael Vinecki’s interests were more musical. He played in a polka band. Eventually he decided to follow his wife and daughter in triathlons. He purchased his first triathlon bike shortly before his 40th birthday.

He never had a chance to race on it.

Michael and Dawn were open with their children about his diagnosis.

As well as his prospects.

“They didn’t try to hide information from us just because we were so young,” Vinecki said.

She decided to shift the focus of Team Winter from childhood obesity to prostate cancer.

“When my dad was going through prostate cancer, there wasn’t much awareness of it,” she said. “It was more common than breast cancer at the time, but the men didn’t want to talk about it, so a 9-year-old girl at the time was going to talk about it for them.”

And talk she did. Handing out blue Team Winter wristbands at races, imploring dads and grandfathers during talks at races to get tested regularly during physicals.

And she and Estelle raised money. A lot of money. By the end of the first year, Team Winter had collected more than $100,000.

Ten months after being diagnosed, Michael Vinecki died at 41.

His daughter channeled even more energy into the foundation. It was her way of fighting back against the disease and heartache.

“I think it made it so I felt I had a way to honor my dad,” she said, “and do something so I wasn’t just bottling up all these feelings and being sad all the time. I was able to do something about it.”

After Michael’s death, Estelle moved the family to Salem, Oregon. Vinecki took up alpine skiing on Mount Bachelor in the Cascades. She and Estelle also continued running marathons and raising awareness. They completed marathons in Mongolia and Kenya and traced the route of Pheidippides in Greece.

Vinecki finished the Antarctica Marathon in March 2013 and then won the Andes Adventure Incas Trail Marathon, climbing two peaks at over 13,000 feet in elevation to Machu Picchu and setting a course record. She was 14, the youngest person to finish a marathon on seven continents.

Vinecki was at an awards ceremony in the fall of 2011, being recognized for her foundation, when she was approached by Emily Cook, a three-time Olympian in freestyle skiing. Vinecki’s speech at the event resonated with Cook, who had lost her mother at a young age.

Cook invited Vinecki to Park City, Utah, to try freestyle skiing.

“How could I say no?” Vinecki recalled.

Overcoming obstacles

The following summer, Vinecki was in Park City for a Team USA prospects camp doing backflips off a ramp into training pool. “Had a ton a fun,” she said.

Vinecki was offered a scholarship to cover her training expenses

“I moved out there a couple weeks later,” she said.

By the summer of 2017, Vinecki seemed to be on track to qualify for the Olympic Games in South Korea the following winter. But while trying to learn a new trick in training in August 2017, Vinecki lost her balance and landed face first in the pool. After a few moments, she rose to the surface of the water.

Face down.

The right side of her face was shattered. Doctors had to place a titanium plate under her eyelid and another in her lower cheeks.

Vinecki again refused to be stopped. Four weeks after her reconstructive surgery, she was back training for the 2018 Games. Then just weeks before the Games, she tore her ACL at an Olympic qualifying competition in Deer Valley.

Her Olympic dreams would have to wait.

Her breakthrough finally came last season with a World Cup victory in Moscow. She followed that with podium finishes the next two weeks.

“That was huge for me,” she said.

This season, she posted fifth-place finishes on back-to-back weekends at World Cup events in Finland.

“My strength comes from trying to be the best that I can be, no matter what I’m doing,” Vinecki said. “Whether it’s running marathons, doing a fundraiser for my foundation or aerial skiing, no matter what, I want to give 110 percent and know that I’m giving it my all.

“Another thing that my strength comes from was losing my dad at a young age. Seeing all the things that he never got the chance to do, I really want to take advantage of every opportunity that I have and to really live each day like it’s my last and not wait until tomorrow to do things that I’m capable of doing today.”

Monday evening, she will stand atop the Olympic hill, her biggest opportunity yet before her, a blue Team Winter wristband tight against her pulse, other memories of Michael even closer.

“Most of what I carry about him is in my heart,” she said.

Then she will take off, attacking a series of obstacles as she always has, fearless and driven by the spirit of a father who never saw her take flight.

“I’ve got to think some part of him is up there watching down, giving me a big smile,” she said. “I think he would think it was pretty crazy and also pretty cool that I’m getting to to fly around through the sky.”

Brushing up against heaven.

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