Olympics 2022: Winter Vinecki's unfathomable journey makes next stop in Beijing

The aptly named Winter Vinecki already has conquered land and sea. Next up for the 23-year-old Olympian is sky and snow. Tom Pennington/Getty Images

WINTER VINECKI SAT in the living room of her Park City, Utah, mountain house on a cold January morning -- exactly a month before the start of the Winter Olympics -- surrounded by artifacts from the many countries she's competed in. Gnomes from Finland, wooden carvings from Kenya and toy llamas from Peru adorn the shelves. Half of Antarctica looks peeled in her overused scratch-off world map on the wall. A giant wooden frame on her fireplace says, "Dream it. Plan it. Do it." A white indoor tower garden is pushing out fresh napa cabbage, arugula and herbs on the far end of the room. Medals of all sizes and shapes pepper the walls, the fireplace and even the floor. She has cleared out a room for the arrival of her own hyperbaric oxygen chamber.

Vinecki is just 23, but her list of accomplishments is both long and extraordinary. Medals in triathlon from when she was a kid, a world record of running seven marathons in seven continents as a teen, a World Cup victory in aerial skiing in her 20s.

"You don't think of how much is changing and how much you're doing because you're just focused on each day at a time," Vinecki said.

But don't believe for a second that her fast-paced and far-reaching accomplishments have come without calamity. She's had surgeries, crushed bones, a broken heart. A ship that nearly sank.

And yet arguably, the most imposing part of her journey is still to come. This week, Vinecki will perch atop a ski slope at the Beijing Olympics, launch herself some 30 feet in the air, then flip and twist before landing on the snow and gliding to a stop. Winning a medal in aerial skiing takes perseverance, focus and courage.

Through experiences in her own home and on the other side of the world, Vinecki already has proven that she has an inordinate amount of all three.

ON A HUMID MORNING in late 2008, a 9-year-old Winter stood next to her mother, Dawn Estelle, at the starting line of a triathlon at Disney World in Orlando, Florida, and adjusted her goggles. She smiled at her father, Michael, and her three brothers who would watch the race from the sidelines. Winter was too young to officially race with the mass start, so the race director organized a separate start for Winter and Dawn.

About six months earlier, Michael had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, and Winter had been competing to raise awareness about the disease ever since. The race director addressed the small crowd and told them about Michael, about Winter's cause. As she spoke, Winter could see her mom fighting back tears out of the corner of her eye.

Then, the gong sounded, and Dawn and Winter jumped into the water together. "Mama and baby whale," Winter thought as they set out side-by-side on the Olympic-distance triathlon, a 1.5-kilometer swim, a 40-kilometer bike ride and a 10-kilometer run. Winter powered through it, finishing before her mom. Her dad stood at the finish line and delivered a congratulatory hug. His bony ribs pressed against her shoulders and face. And at that moment she knew -- cancer was gnawing away at him.

It was the last time she would ever compete in front of her father. Just a few months later, despite treatment and surgery, she watched her father die.

Some kids, some families might have lost their sense of self, their purpose by the death of a father, a husband. But Winter and her family took the opposite approach. She wanted to scream her father's story from the rooftops, believing that awareness could foster prevention. She decided to run more, to swim more, to bike more, all with the hope that her strength could keep her dad's memory alive -- and empower others. Her mom and brothers supported her, knowing that going and going and going was all she knew how to do from when she was a child.

All along, Dawn and Michael had made it a point never to tell their kids something they wanted to try was going to be hard. Her parents' motto with Winter and their three sons: Let them do everything they love. And the couple tag-teamed -- Dawn as a physician and the family's primary breadwinner and Michael as a largely stay-at-home father.

Winter, who was named after the season in which she was born -- a December morning in 1998 in Grand Rapids, Michigan -- started competing in triathlons at age 5, which was years after she started running and hiking through her family's 200-acre property in Gaylord, Michigan, which was attached to her grandparents' 2,000 acres of land. Dawn was an athlete, and the family spent weekends cheering her on in races. During one of Dawn's triathlons, Winter noticed a 5K kids race and promptly enrolled in it. What fun to run with mom, she thought.

"Kids don't know 'hard' until they're told something is hard," Vinecki said in a recent podcast with American Winter Olympian Apolo Ohno.

The year after her father died, Winter won her first IronKids National Triathlon, a race that Lance Armstrong also won as a kid. (She would go back and defend her title in 2011.)

Within the first year, Winter had raised $100,000 for prostate cancer research, and she gave away her trophies to people who were fighting the disease. She gave speeches at competitions and other events, her 9-year-old voice betraying the wisdom and passion of her words.

"I felt his presence every time I was out running or training," Winter said.

During that year, when she was skimming through the book of world records, a record caught her eye: Seven marathons in seven continents. And the record for the youngest to do it was held by a 27-year-old man.

I can beat that record, easy, she said to herself.

Let's get to work, her mom said.

THE WATER MADE a whooshing noise as it crashed against the side of the boat. Winter, eyes wide open, clasped the sides of the captain's cabin. It was March 2013, and she and Dawn were traveling back from Antarctica to Argentina after finishing the 26.2 miles of the Antarctica Marathon. She felt the ocean beneath the boat swell. Then she felt the boat rise. She sat, for hours, and watched the captain as he steered the boat through the Drake Passage, a treacherous part of the ocean that has claimed the lives of thousands of sailors.

"Our boat was crashing down to the water, it would fly off the top," Winter said. "I felt like we were Peter Pan."

Dawn was terrified. She swapped beds with Winter when she saw her tiny frame roll off because of the crashing waves.

"And all the food was sliding onto the floor," Dawn said. "Tables were tipping over. We were all instantly sick."

Once they reached Argentina and could think clearly again, they realized how wild the trip to the South Pole had been, every step of the way. Three weeks before the race, Dawn received an email: The ship that was supposed to take them to the starting line had hit an iceberg, and they needed to find another way to the race. They found the only ship -- a research vessel -- going into the South Pole for the season, and traveled for two days from Ushuaia, Argentina, on the southernmost tip of South America, to Antarctica. At mile 17 of the race, the earth beneath Winter seemed to shake, and despite 20-degree temperatures and no wind, Winter thought something really bad was about to happen, only to realize she didn't have her land legs back after being at sea for two days.

Still, she finished, and checked off her third marathon on three continents. Already she had run the Eugene Marathon in Oregon and the Amazing Maasai Marathon in Africa. Winter, 14, had four marathons to go to become a world-record holder.

To understand Winter's ability to say I'm going to do it and then accomplish it, it's important to understand Dawn. Dawn is Winter's yes-man. Her hype woman. Her logistics coordinator. The person who makes Winter's dreams come true.

So if Winter wanted to travel to all corners of the earth to run 183.4 miles, Dawn was going to figure out how to help her daughter achieve it. Not only that, Dawn was going to run the seven marathons with her daughter. She was going to travel with her anyway, so why not make it a double record chase? Winter would become the youngest to run seven marathons in seven continents; Winter and Dawn would become the first mother-daughter duo to run seven marathons in seven continents. It had a nice ring to it.

People called Dawn crazy. How could she let a 14-year-old run so much when her body is still developing? How could she say yes to everything her kids wanted? How could she not keep them in check? But she was a physician, and she believed Winter wasn't doing anything a child couldn't do if they had the right training and nutrition.

Dawn also had another important reason.

"I don't want them ever to say, 'I couldn't do something because I didn't have a dad,'" Dawn said. "That's my number one goal for my kids."

So Dawn sacrificed a lot. For years, the family didn't take a vacation so Dawn could save every extra penny she earned as a physician to help pay for her tickets and lodging. (Sponsors made sure Winter's flights and gear were covered.) It also meant Dawn had to leave her three sons behind with babysitters.

"I don't want them ever to say, 'I couldn't do something because I didn't have a dad.'" Dawn Estelle

After Michael's death, the family moved to Salem, Oregon. Dawn overworked in Michigan, and that was OK when a second parent was home. But she needed a job that would accommodate her new life as a single mom. Down from 80 hours and constantly being on call in Michigan, her new workload in Salem was closer to 60 hours, and that meant she could be around the kids more.

But accompanying Winter meant her sons went from having their father always around to going days without talking to their mom. Because they were often out of coverage area, the boys waited for their mother and sister to come home before they could pepper them with questions. What did people eat in Kenya? What were the mountains in Peru like? What kind of clothes did people in Antarctica wear?

"There were definitely times where I wished Mom was around more," said Magnum, 21, who is 18 months younger than Winter.

Meanwhile, Yukon, 24, the oldest child, helped make sure the rest of his siblings did their homework and ate well, and as soon as he could drive, he chauffeured them places.

As an athlete, Winter had the attention of the media from a young age. But Dawn and Michael's three sons are prodigious in their own right. Yukon was programming for Minecraft at age 15, and was a licensed pilot even before he was a licensed driver. Ruger was obsessed with outer space and is now an aerospace engineering major at the University of Colorado. And Magnum loved numbers and is a finance major at Oregon State.

"I feel like nothing Winter did was out of the ordinary because our parents never made it seem like she was doing something crazy," Ruger said. "I think we all got that from our mom -- the 'go out and challenge yourself as much as you can and see what happens' attitude."

But sometimes attitude isn't enough. One of Winter's biggest hurdles was convincing race directors to let a 14-year-old run their marathons. Most marathons have a 16- or 18-year cutoff, as some studies have shown increased risk of bone damage in young children and teens due to repetitive trauma from running 26.2 miles.

So, in early 2013, when Winter and Dawn were looking for marathon No. 4, Dawn googled "marathons in South America," and the Inca Trail in Peru popped up. Considered the toughest marathon on earth, it includes several steep mountain passes (two of which are 13,000 feet) and takes some of the toughest ultra-runners 11 hours or more to complete.

No way, Dawn thought, and moved on.

But denial after denial led Dawn back to the Inca Trail, and the race directors simply said, "Yes."

Dawn was anxious about the Inca Trail, but Winter didn't think twice. To her it was another opportunity to make her dad proud. She worked with coach Mark Hadley, who had experience training younger kids in marathon running. She trained as though she was running an ultra marathon, learning important tools that would come in handy during an all-day run, like keeping food and water down.

Early on in the race, Winter broke from her mother, running at a much faster pace. She didn't know it then, but when Winter crossed the finish line in 9 hours and 18 minutes, she was the women's winner.

As she walked to a stop, the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu came into view, leaving Winter speechless. She waited a little over an hour and a half at the finish line for Dawn, and some indigenous llamas provided her warmth and company.

Her journey has been more than running. There are the llamas in Peru, the two young boys in Kenya who followed her during a part of her run, yelling "Jambo" (hello in Swahili) and seals barking at her in Antarctica.

Eighteen months after she ran her first marathon, Winter, at 14, followed the same path that, according to legend, Pheidippides ran when he brought news of victory from the battlefield of Marathon 2,500 years ago. When she reached the finish line of the Athens Marathon in Olympic Stadium, she had completed the seventh marathon in the seventh continent, and the weight of not just the 26.2 miles, but the 183.4 miles landed on her as she took her final steps.

"Nobody out of 8 billion people have ever done it [younger]," Dawn said.

Winter Olympics schedule | Medal tracker

To both Magnum and Yukon, Winter was the person who proposed a wild idea. And Dawn was the person who brought the wild idea to life. "If you want to do it, she'll do it with you," Magnum said.

"It still blows my mind that the two of them were able to finish the seven marathons -- like what?" Yukon said.

What was even more mind-blowing was that Winter had already uprooted her life and moved to a new city at age 12 -- without her family -- to pursue something entirely different and equally daunting.

SKIS ON HER FEET, Vinecki stood on a track that sloped 16 feet down to a large outdoor pool. It was August 2017, less than six months before the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics and less than four years since she completed her marathon challenge. Now she was in Park City, Utah, trying to perfect a new aerial skiing trick: A back full double full, in which she'd do one rotation on her first flip and two on her second flip before landing on her skis. For safety reasons, she was practicing in water before moving onto snow.

With a helmet on to protect her head, Vinecki skied off the kicker -- a man-made angled end of a ramp that allows skiers to gain height in the air -- her hands in fists under her face to help with balance. On the second flip, she lost control, not knowing where she was in the air. She crashed into the water.

For a second, everything seemed fine. Sure, she didn't land on her feet, but that happens when skiers try new tricks.

A few seconds passed, and there was no sign of Vinecki swimming to the far end of the pool. Then her body surfaced.

She was face down in the pool. Floating.

The lifeguards jumped in and grabbed her out of the pool.

She quickly came to. But her entire face felt numb, like she had frostbite.

They rushed her to do an MRI.

The bones under her right eye and her cheek were broken to smithereens.

When she landed face first in the water, her fist punched her face, causing seven separate fractures around her right eye and cheek.

She needed facial reconstruction surgery. And soon.

Growing up, Vinecki barely knew what aerial skiing was, but that changed thanks to three-time Olympic aerial skier Emily Cook. Back in 2011, Cook had goosebumps watching Vinecki speak on stage after receiving the Annika Inspiration Award in New York. Cook had lost her mother when she was a child, and every word out of Vinecki's mouth -- losing her father, finding her purpose, making sense of life -- resonated with her.

"You could just feel her energy up there. She was driven and she was passionate, and she was going to accomplish whatever she wanted to accomplish," Cook said.

Cook made up her mind immediately: She was going to ask Vinecki to try aerial skiing.

She approached Vinecki after her speech and said, "Do you want to come live with me in Utah and train to be an aerial skier?"

Vinecki's eyes lit up. A new challenge? Sounds great, she thought. Dawn, who was also present, heard Cook and, as usual, said, Sure, let's do this.

It was a one-week aerial skiing camp in Park City, and Vinecki would stay with Cook. At the end of the camp, two athletes would be awarded scholarships to stay to train the entire summer. Even before she knew the intricacies of aerial skiing, Vinecki decided she was going to win the scholarship.

"I call Winter a cat, because she can literally land any jump." Miriah Johnson

Dawn's practice and her three other children kept her busy, so she put Winter on a plane and sent her to stay with Cook. Winter reached Cook's house, and without missing a beat, said she needed to go on an eight-mile run. She still had six marathons to go, and she couldn't miss out on her marathon training. She also told Cook she needed to go to the grocery store to pick up fruits and vegetables.

"This 12-year-old kid was already a full-blown athlete with a strict regimen she maintains all on her own," Cook said. "It was amazing."

One aerial skiing session was all it took for Vinecki to get hooked. She watched as athletes flipped and twisted in the air before landing and skiing away. Vinecki skied growing up, so landing came naturally. What was challenging -- and exhilarating -- were the jumps.

"I just loved the feeling of flying through the air," Vinecki said.

Cook and her coach, Todd Ossian, who ran the camp, noticed Vinecki's passion almost instantly. She picked up cues after hearing them just once, and she clung to the vision of landing a jump, of getting better.

Vinecki called her mom after the first few days and said, "Mom, I love it. I am going to move to Park City and become an aerial skier."

"If Winter does something, it's all-in," Dawn said.

Dawn called a friend who lived in Park City and asked if they would host Winter. In a matter of days, it was arranged. At the end of the first week, Winter won one of the scholarships. She had successfully landed front flips and mini jumps in the training pool.

"I knew immediately this kid was special," Cook said.

A one-week trip to Park City turned into a three-month stay, and soon enough she'd spent an entire year there training. She was still pursuing the marathon record with Dawn, so they found pockets in her training to run races around the world.

But Park City became home. First she lived with Dawn's friends, then she moved in with her teammate, Miriah Johnson, and together they made each other better.

"I call Winter a cat, because she can literally land any jump -- it's so annoying sometimes," said Johnson, who comes from a gymnastics background. "I learned how to land from her, and I taught her how to work the air. We complemented each other."

Every evening Vinecki spent hours on Skype with her family, sometimes chatting, but most times silently going about her day -- doing her homework, cooking and cleaning -- but always having her family on video call. Her three brothers took shifts moving the phone from one room to another as the Vinecki family moved through its day.

A year into training, Vinecki started doing double fulls -- one flip and two twists -- and that was exciting. She began pushing herself more.

Vinecki knew she was sacrificing a lot. And so was her mother. Over the past 10 years, Dawn estimates she has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars -- on Winter's education (she graduated from Stanford University Online High School and the University of Utah), coaching, traveling, gear, housing and food -- to help Winter pursue her dreams.

But Winter had a new goal -- competing in the 2018 Winter Olympics -- and Dawn respected it. Only four Americans had won Olympic medals (two golds and two silvers) and only one U.S. woman had ever won gold in aerial skiing at the Olympics (Nikki Stone in 1998 in Nagano). Winter wanted to become part of that elite circle.

So when Dawn heard the words, "Mom, I broke my face," she called her friends in the medical industry. A world-renowned plastic surgeon in Michigan asked Dawn to have Winter get on a plane to Michigan immediately. A few days later, Winter underwent facial reconstruction surgery, and the doctors placed two titanium plates -- one under her eyelid and another in her lower cheeks. Winter had the right side of her face covered in a big white bandage, on which Dawn wrote, "Never give in."

"That surgery was horrible," Vinecki said. "After, they had to sew my lower eyelid to my eyebrow and my face was super swollen. I was pretty miserable."

Never again will Winter fall on her face without protection, Dawn said to herself. She contacted Jeremy Murray, who had made masks for legends like the late Kobe Bryant. A few weeks later, a see-through mask designed specifically for Vinecki arrived.

Four weeks after her surgery, Vinecki returned to training, determined to make the cut for the 2018 Games. She steadily built herself back up over the next four months, perfecting new tricks and preparing herself for the Olympic qualifiers in Deer Valley.

But just when she seemed poised to land her dream of representing Team USA at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, she suffered another -- in many ways more serious -- injury.

WEARING HER PJs, Vinecki settled onto her couch to watch the freestyle skiing competitions at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics. She was 19 years old and 6,000 miles away from her dream.

Her teammates went one after another, jumping into the air, performing twists and flips before landing and skiing away. Each performance was judged -- as it had been since the inception of aerial skiing at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer -- by seven judges, awarding scores based on jump, flips, twists and then landing. The total score is calculated by adding individual components and multiplying the total by the jump's degree of difficulty. The maximum points a skier can earn on a jump is 150.

She watched Belarus' Hanna Huskova score 96.14 for the gold medal. She also watched her U.S. teammates, Madison Olsen, Kiley McKinnon and Ashley Caldwell, miss the podium.

She had come so close to being there, with her teammates, in South Korea, but just three weeks ago that dream was snatched away from her.


Vinecki felt the sound reverberate from her right knee the instant she landed after her jump at an Olympic qualifier in Deer Valley.

Dawn and her three sons, who were watching from the bottom of the hill, could hardly tell anything was off. There was some collected ice in the landing area, and Winter didn't land perfectly. She leaned toward her right side, and her right leg caught most of her weight.

Vinecki knew something was wrong immediately. She asked the medic to check her knee, and she was told everything seemed fine. But Vinecki shook her head. Something is wrong, she repeated. They drove to the nearest hospital for an MRI.

The results were clear: It was a torn ACL.

"I remember sitting there and he said, 'You see this black hole right here?' He goes, 'This is where your ACL is supposed to be.' And he says, 'There's nothing,'" Dawn said.

"We just cried."

So when her teammates left for South Korea, Vinecki had ACL surgery. The process of building back not only her strength, but also her confidence, loomed large in her mind.

One day at a time, she planned her return. The universe had made her learn how to turn pain into purpose when she was 9 years old. This wasn't going to be any different.

Days after her surgery, she began physiotherapy. Three months after her injury, she posted a picture captioned, "That feeling when you can touch your heel to your butt again!" Five months later, she returned to the pool, back to the basics. A year after her surgery, in January 2019, she won the U.S. national championships in Lake Placid, New York.

In March 2020, when COVID-19 shut down the entire world, Vinecki drove to Missouri to train in Johnson's parents' gym, which came with a full-sized trampoline. When most of the elite athletes took months off from training, Vinecki made up for time lost.

Three years after her ACL injury, in January 2021, Vinecki won for the first time at a World Cup competition, in Moscow, after landing a perfect back double full-full. As always, she fanned her face before the jump, her mask making her nose look more beak-like. Ever since her face injury, she has changed her hand positioning -- she now places her left hand near her left ear while her right hand stays by her side -- as she flipped and twisted in the air. And then she glided onto the snow, a smooth landing. She punched her fist in the air as soon as she landed, knowing it was a good jump. The judges awarded her a 94.11.

Her face erupted into a smile, and she threw her hands in the air, celebrating.

"It was a special jump," said Vladimir Lebedev, the U.S. ski team's head aerials coach. "It's one of the highlights of her career."

That same summer, four years after punching her face, Vinecki tried the trick that caused so much agony -- a back full double full -- for the first time again, her hands shaking with nerves before the jump. "You got it, don't worry," Lebedev said matter of factly.

She landed it perfectly.

Just in time for the 2022 Beijing Olympics.

THREE WEEKS BEFORE Vinecki boarded a plane to Beijing, she hugged her mom one last time before entering quarantine in an apartment a few blocks away from her mountain house in Park City.

By the time she returns home, it will have been six weeks since she was in her family's presence. One of the cruelties of the pandemic: the crippling loneliness that has accompanied Vinecki before and after every event.

But, she made videos about it and posted them on TikTok, showing people what it feels like to say hi to her brothers who were visiting Utah, smiling and waving furiously from the far end of the road as though the ferocity of the wave would make up for the chasm between them.

Dawn dropped off food at her doorstep sometimes. And they FaceTimed. A lot.

She would do anything to ensure she gets to the Olympics COVID-19 free. She hadn't come this far, her dream delayed four years, only for a virus to stop her from competing. So she decided that 2022 would be the year she achieves her dream of competing at the Olympics. And 2026 will be the year she experiences the Olympics, the hoopla of it all, with her family.

She also has come to think of her ACL injury as a blessing in disguise. In 2018, she probably would have made it to the Olympics, but she wasn't ready yet. Not to win a medal. But now, ranked No. 14 in the World Cup standings (one spot behind American teammate Kaila Kuhn), she knows in her bones she can get on that podium. Win a medal for her country. And that gives her peace about her past.

As for her future, ask anyone who knows Vinecki. They'll tell you she has just scratched the surface. She's going to go on and do a 100 different things in her life. And excel at every single thing.

She has already begun writing her memoir -- due out this fall -- focusing not just on the happy parts, but the painful, more uneasy parts of her journey as well.

"Certainly looking back, sometimes it seems like just yesterday that I was at home in Michigan with my dad and brothers," Vinecki said. "But also at the same time I'm like, 'Holy cow, that feels so long ago that I ran a marathon.'"

The passage of time in her extraordinary life is marked by artifacts all around her: Gnomes from Finland, wooden carvings from Kenya, toy llamas from Peru. This weekend, a medal from Beijing is just a few flips, twists and soft landings away.