Not much intimidates Winter Vinecki. As the 23-year-old prepares for the start of her first Olympics, she’s already seen more life than most people twice her age: At age nine, she lost her father to prostate cancer; at 13, she moved away from home to start training in aerial skiing; at 14, she became the youngest person to run a marathon on all seven continents. A word of advice? Don’t underestimate her.
“It all started back when I was nine years old,” she says over Zoom. That was the year she signed up for her first Olympic distance triathlon, which comprises a 1.5 kilometer swim, a 40 kilometer bike ride, and a 10 kilometer run in rapid succession. Vinecki had gotten her first taste of competition a few years earlier while tagging along with her mom, Dawn Estelle, as she competed in triathlons. “We’d go as a family to watch her race so we’d take our R.V., load my three brothers, myself, my dad, and I to go watch my mom,” she says. One event in Canada offered a kids’ race, she recalls. “We were like, ‘Well, shoot, let’s do it.’” Wiinter, gangly and full of energy, walked up to the starting line wearing water wings. “I saw no other kids had their water wings on so we had to rip mine off,” she says, laughing. It was instant love.
Growing up on 200 acres of land in northern Michigan, on a property adjacent to her grandparents’ 2,000 acres, “I loved running around the woods and just having fun and playing, being outdoors. The running in triathlons came naturally,” Vinecki says. She was hooked—but faced a small challenge: There weren’t many kids’ races in her area. “That’s how I got involved in the adult sprint triathlons and doing longer distances,” she says. “I didn’t think anything of it really because I was just out there having fun.”
By the time she had signed up for the Olympic-distance race when she was nine, she was used to fielding it’s-never-been-done-before’s from doubting adults. “[The race organizers] had to have a separate start for me because I was so young,” she says. “They were like, ‘You’re never going to finish.’ But I did, and I finished very well amongst all the adults.
“That was the last race my dad was there waiting for me at the finish line,” Vinecki says. “After he passed away just shortly after, I was always thinking, ‘What could I do next in honor of him?’”
While most people her age are just beginning to figure out what they want their lives to look like, Vinecki seems acutely aware of time, diving head-first into every opportunity that begins with a “Wouldn’t it be cool if….” One day, in her early teens, she was “randomly” looking through the Guinness Book of World Records and came across the youngest person—a 27-year-old—to run a marathon on all seven continents. Wouldn’t it be cool if she could beat that? “I immediately told my mom, ‘I want this record.’ I thought it would be so cool to be able to honor my dad in that way and be able to take his memory across the globe,” she says.
It’s these moments that make Vinecki seem like she might truly be capable of anything. When faced with a challenge, she doesn’t just rise—she soars. After her dad’s diagnosis, Vinecki founded Team Winter in 2008, a nonprofit with the aim of raising awareness of prostate cancer. What better way to raise awareness than to run with her message across the globe? Vinecki’s mom started looking into races and before long a plan had formed: They would become the first mother-daughter duo to run a marathon on all seven continents. The duo started with their first race in Oregon before heading to Kenya, where Vinecki finished third in the field.