When a 12-year-old girl tells you she intends to run seven marathons next year—each on a different continent—you initially pass it off as pre-teen bravado.
But when the 12-year-old girl says she hopes people will be inspired enough by her feat to learn all they can about prostate cancer, you feel compelled to ask why.
And when she tells you the reason, you wonder how a 12-year-old can be so courageous. Or run a nonprofit company that has raised more than $300,000. Or maintain straight As while traveling the country to further her cause.
Then when she tells you she wants to be the most well-known endurance athlete in world by the time she’s 18, all the while doing a little acting and modeling between book tours, speaking engagements and downhill ski competitions, well, you don’t just believe her.
You find yourself rooting for her.
It’s barely past 7 a.m. on a sultry Saturday morning in Rochester, Minn., where a few hundred young athletes have assembled to swim, bike and run at a Hy-Vee IronKids Midwest Series qualifying event. The top finishers will earn a trip to West Des Moines for the national championships in less than two months.
Spandex-clad children with apprehensive faces and black numbers on their arms and legs pace the grounds of the Rochester Athletic Club. Equally nervous parents pace beside them to offer encouragement and reminders about the course. “Nathan, remember, at transition, you have to walk your bike down this path and mount down there.”
The temperature is rising along with the anticipation.
In a shady spot next to her Team Winter tent, the slight, blond 12-year-old from Salem, Ore., appears relaxed. She has already qualified for nationals, so there’s no reason to compete today. But Winter Vinecki is the official traveling ambassador for the IronKids organization.
She has decided to race anyway.
“It’s what she does,” says her mother, Dawn Estelle.
Winter bends forward to stretch her hamstrings. She shakes her calves to loosen them. She rolls her shoulders, crosses and uncrosses her arms, and she smiles slightly when her mother says, “This is how she chose to grieve.”
Daughter and father loved to run. And they were pretty good at it. In kindergarten, Winter could already outdistance all of the kids her age —and most of the ones who were a few years older. Boys included. So her parents, both weekend athletes, nurtured her competitive spirit and entered her in local and regional events, where the little girl racked up ribbons, trophies and acclaim. Kids began to look up to her. Coaches lined up for her.
Winter was 5 when she tried the triathlon. Her dad, a musician, helped her train. The sport grew on him and he eventually bought a bicycle.
“Michael had put only 100 miles on his bike when he was diagnosed,” Dawn says.
Doctors told Vinecki he had a rare and aggressive form of prostate cancer. Experts say there are several stages people go through when told they are going to die. It begins with denial. Vinecki never got past stage one.
“My dad passed away 10 months later,” says Winter. “He never saw his 41st birthday.”
The year before her dad’s diagnosis, Winter had completed her first 10k race in Florida, where runners were encouraged in advance to set up a fundraising web page. Turns out Winter was pretty good at raising money, too. Team Winter generated $1,100 for childhood obesity awareness.
After her father fell ill, Team Winter became a bona fide company focused on beating prostate cancer.
“Since I was only 9 years old at the time, my mom had to help with all the paperwork, banking, and filing for the non-profit status,” she says.
There are now 250 athletes around the world who have signed up online to race for Team Winter. They have collectively raised more than $300,000, and they use each event to educate others about the disease through pre-race expos and media interviews.
Her brothers Yukon, 14, Ruger, 8, and Magnum, 10, help keep Team Winter running. Yukon operates the website; the other boys fill online orders for merchandise. Mom oversees the effort.
“She’s becoming the face of prostate cancer,” Dawn, an obstetrican/gynecologist, says. “The Prostate Cancer Foundation asked actors, athletes, politicians, but a 12-year-old little girl is the one who stepped up.”
Winter, who takes online classes when her schedule gets too hectic, wrapped up the spring semester at Judson Middle School in Salem a few days early so she could attend the IronKids Triathlon in Round Rock, Texas, and deliver her message on where healthy lifestyle can lead. Between media interviews (she was recently featured in London’s Daily Mail) and TV appearances (she counts Rachel Ray among her friends) Winter gives countless inspirational speeches, organizes numerous events for Team Winter, and, oh yes, trains up to four hours a day.
“I go to the IronKids events and encourage kids to lead active and positive lives,” she says. “And I encourage them to not only race for themselves but for a cause that is dear to them.”
Winter’s cause is inscribed on her father’s headstone: “Cancer, we will chase you to the end of the earth and stomp you out like you stomped my dad out.”
The kids in Rochester know who Winter is. They eye her with admiration as she warms up in her familiar powder blue tri suit.
So do many of the adults, who find themselves rooting for her.
“Way to go, Winter.”
“Go get ‘em, Winter.”
Winter is out of the pool quickly and is gliding around the bike course with a fluidity that sets her apart from the other youngsters.
Dawn follows her daughter’s progress. She’s leaning with her into the turns and occasionally shouting encouragement. She’s heard all the criticism from people who say pre-teens should not train this hard. They should not run until they vomit. They should not deplete their growing bodies in grueling humidity just for a medal. She politely reminds the critics of Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong and countless other Olympians and champions who started young, stayed with it and inspired others to reach heights they would not have otherwise.
This was a choice Winter made. This is how she celebrates her father. This is how she lives.
“When I’m out there, I know my dad is watching over me,” she says. “When I cross the finish line, he’s there waiting.”
He never waits long.
Only one athlete—a lean, long-legged 15-year-old boy—finishes the Rochester race faster than Winter, who grabs a bottle of water, sucks the juice from a cup of pineapple pieces and returns to the Team Winter tent, where admirers wait.
She signs autographs. She shakes hands.
“I want this to be bigger than the (Susan G.) Komen Foundation someday,” she says, smiling. And you find yourself rooting for her.
Seven marathons; seven continents
In November, Winter Vinecki plans to run the first of seven marathons over 12 months to raise global awareness of prostate cancer, which will affect one in six adult men.
The quest is scheduled to begin in Antarctica
For more information, go to teamwinter.org.