Winter wunderkind: 14-year-old is youngest ever to run marathons on all continents

Winter Vinecki after the Antartica Marathon, March 30, 2013.

Ask a normal 14-year-old girl what she has been up to over the past few weeks, and you might hear about an algebra test, or playing a school soccer match, or going to a movie with friends.

Ask Winter Vinecki, and you find that this teen from Salem, Ore., doesn’t do normal. Among Winter’s recent accomplishments: crossing the finish line of a marathon in Athens, Greece, making her the youngest person to complete a marathon on all seven continents.

It’s a goal that Vinecki accomplished – in just 18 months – alongside her mom, Dr. Dawn Estelle, the first mother-daughter duo to complete the feat together as they traveled to races in Eugene, Ore., Kenya, Antarctica, Peru, New Zealand, Mongolia and Greece. It also was an opportunity to spend some rare quality time with her mom, since for much of the year Vinecki lives with a host family in Park City, Utah, where she is training to compete in the 2018 Olympics in aerial skiing.

For the bubbly, blond-haired teen super-athlete, such mind-blowing successes are no biggie. They are all part of the mantra she started following at age 9, when she experienced the unthinkable and lost her father, Michael, to an aggressive form of prostate cancer.  

“Watching him deal with cancer, I realized some things. One is that you don’t put off until tomorrow what you are capable of doing today,” says Winter.

Winter Vinceki and mom Dawn Estelle after the Inca Trail Marathon

Her father’s death at age 40 was a catalyst for Winter, who vowed to do everything in her power to help find a cure for prostate cancer. And given that her “powers” included her gift for competitive running, with her family’s help, she started Team Winter, a vessel for raising money for prostate cancer research and awareness through racing competitions. Winter and her mom are both on the board of the organization, which has raised more than $400,000 since 2008.

In March, Winter became the youngest person ever to complete a marathon in Antarctica, where she braved temperatures of 22 degrees Fahrenheit during the race, finishing third among all females in an impressive 4 hours and 49 minutes.

Winter says it’s hard to pick which marathon she enjoyed the most because “they were all so different,” but she loved New Zealand and describes Antarctica as “magical.” The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu race in Peru was one of her favorite courses.

For Winter, the races aren’t tough because she is so mentally prepared. “I power through,” she says. “I’m running for my dad, just trying to get to the finish line. I’m not thinking about anything else.”

The biggest difficulty is all the travel – the numerous plane rides and the sometimes sketchy food and accommodations. Mongolia was challenging, she says, as she and her mom shared a yurt and ate yak meat and white rice before the race.

Winter Vinecki after the marathon in Mongolia, August 7, 2013.

Estelle, 45, who is an obstetrician-gynecologist and also has three sons ages 16, 13 and 11, says her daughter takes after her in being a perfectionist. Winter pushes herself to be the best in everything she does, whether it’s a race or school work or a Team Winter project, and she does it all for her dad, Estelle says.

“She has no other way to make her dad proud,” Estelle says. “She can’t jump on his lap and give him a hug. She can’t run beside him and play anymore. I think she uses her success as an athlete to honor her dad and so that the whole world knows who her dad is.”

For Estelle, the accomplishment of running marathons on all continents with her daughter was a matter of “walking the walk and talking the talk.”

“By running these marathons with her I could then empathize with her on how tough they were, how tough training for them was and share the emotion of completing each," Estelle says. I also want to show her that I, too, could do anything I put my mind to and that I can be a full-time mom, a full-time dad, a full-time physician and still train and run seven marathons in 18 months at age 45," Estelle says. 

Next up on Winter’s plate: Training to make the 2018 Winter Olympic team in aerial skiing, a sport that she says is a great complement to running and something she’s equally passionate about.

“Aerial skiing is more of a skill sport. It takes more guts and willpower to get off the jump,” says Winter. “But running is how I stay connected with my dad.”