How aerial skier Winter Vinecki turned her passion for running into an Olympic career

Winter Vinecki competes and the Deer Valley World Cup.
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What does marathon running have to do with aerial skiing? Everything if you’re Winter Vinecki, who fittingly will become the first Winter Olympian named “Winter” when she makes her Olympic debut for Team USA this month in China.

“Running and competing in other sports helped me be a better all-around athlete,” wrote Vinecki in a recent first-person essay for TeamUSA.org. Now 23, she set two world records as a 14-year-old when she became the youngest person to run a marathon on seven continents, and for being part of the first daughter-mother duo to do so when her mom, Dawn, joined her on the quest.

“It prepared my tendons, ligaments and muscles for the impacts I would endure from landing from 40 feet in the air. Most of all, though, running helped my mental ability to train and compete at a high level. Marathons taught me grit and perseverance.”

Her inspiring athletic journey started when the Northern Michigan native was just 5 years old, running her first 5K race and graduating to triathlons that same year. She ran her first 10K at age 8, completed her first Olympic-length triathlons at 9 and ran her first 10-mile race at 10.

And then she got serious.

Vinecki was just 9 when her father, Michael, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of prostate cancer and passed away just 10 months later. That’s when she got the idea to form her non-profit, Team Winter, which to date has raised more than $500,000 for prostate cancer awareness and research through her running. Her world marathon tour, in which she still participates, includes Eugene, Ore., Kenya, Antarctica, the Inca Trail to Machu Pichu in Peru, Mongolia, New Zealand and the original marathon course in Athens, Greece.

In October 2011, Vinecki was in New York City at the Women’s Sports Foundation’s Annual Salute to Women in Sport, where she was honored with the Annika Inspiration Award. That’s where she was approached by three-time Olympian Emily Cook, who suggested the 12-year-old Vinecki try her hand at aerials.

“How could I say no?!” Vinecki recalls. “I went out to Park City (Utah) that next summer and fell in love with the feeling of flying through the air.”

It’s that feeling of flying that hooked her on aerials: “Aerial skiing, I think, is as close to flying as you can get,” she tells NBC Olympics. “You literally are flying through the air, doing a bunch of flips and twists. A lot of people don’t know this, but we actually can see most of the time when we’re in the air, so you’re just watching the ground, where you’re going to land, and it’s just amazing, when you stick that. It’s such a unique feeling.”

MORE WINTER OLYMPICS COVERAGE: Mogul skier Jaelin Kauf looks to ‘deliver the love’ at Beijing Olympics

Currently ranked 14th in the standings, Vinecki notched her first career World Cup podiums last season with a win in Moscow, a third at Raubichi, Belarus, and a second on home soil in Park City at Deer Valley Resort.

Most recently, Vinecki finished second for the U.S. as part of the aerials team event last month in Ruka, Finland, and last month at Deer Valley – the last World Cup stop before the Olympics – she qualified for the finals but finished 12th after crashing out ahead of the podium round.

“We got some really good training here in Deer Valley and that’s just what I needed before we head over to Beijing,” Vinecki said. “Obviously would have loved to get on the podium, but I’m healthy and happy we get to train one more week [in Park City] before we head over. This event is always tough as expected, we always know it’s going to be great. Getting some good double-ins in training and getting really consistent with those is really important here and I’m just going to keep doing that at the [Utah Olympic Park].”

Vinecki will share the spotlight in Beijing with U.S. teammates Kaila Kuhn, the 18-year-old from Boyne City, Mich.; Megan Nick, the 25-year-old Vermont native; and 28-year-old Ashley Caldwell, who will be competing in her fourth Winter Olympics. They’ll face stiff competition from perennial powerhouses Australia and China, which boasts the Nos. 1-2 women in the World Cup standings in Xu Mengtao and 2018 Olympic bronze medalist Kong Fanyu. Aussie and two-time Olympian Laura Peel, currently ranked No. 3, took top honors at Deer Valley for her seventh career World Cup win and first since January 2021.

(The full episode of My New Favorite Olympian podcast featuring Winter Vinecki is embedded above. You can also listen to the My New Favorite Olympian podcast on Apple, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app.)

2022 Winter Olympics: Schedule for Women’s Aerials and Mixed Team Aerials

Sport Event Date / Time (U.S. Eastern Time) Date / Time (Beijing, China)
Freestyle Skiing Mixed Team Aerials 2/10/22 6:00 AM 2/10/22 7:00 PM
Women’s Aerials (Qualifying) 2/13/22 6:00 AM 2/13/22 7:00 PM
Women’s Aerials (Final) 2/14/22 6:00 AM 2/14/22 7:00 PM

MORE FROM ON HER TURF: How to watch every women’s event at the 2022 Winter Olympics

Justine Wong-Orantes’ atypical path to becoming one of the best liberos in the world

Justine Wong-Orantes hits the ball in the women's semi-final volleyball match between USA and Serbia during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
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It’s been 20 years since the same nation held both the Olympic and world volleyball titles at the same time, but libero Justine Wong-Orantes is looking to help lead Team USA accomplish that very feat at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships in the Netherlands and Poland. Competition began on Friday and the U.S. is currently 2-0 after group play wins against Kazakhstan and Canada.

“We’re trying to win, for sure,” Wong-Orantes told On Her Turf. “I think, especially with the new turn of the program and the new year of the quad, we just have a really nice blend of veterans and also newcomers on the team.”

The 14-woman roster for Team USA, which is ranked No. 1 in the world and won its first Olympic title last summer, features six players from that gold-medal-winning team. And while Wong-Orantes is among the 2021 U.S. Olympic team veterans, she’s still a relative newcomer to international play.

The Southern California native enjoyed a notable junior career – she was 12 when she became the youngest female to ever earn an AAA rating in beach volleyball – and was a standout collegian at Nebraska, where she was a member of the 2015 NCAA championship team. But Wong-Orantes followed a different path upon graduation, initially choosing not to go overseas to play professionally.

While she was first selected for the U.S. national team in 2016 and played a handful of international tournaments in the following years, it wasn’t until she started playing professionally in Germany in 2019 that she saw the potential to elevate her position on the roster. In particular, the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics gave her an additional year of overseas experience, which she calls “a blessing in disguise.”

“I just felt like I was still in that developmental stage,” she said. “And a whole year postponement allowed me to go overseas and really get all the touches, all the repetitions, and just kind of expose myself to international volleyball another year. So I was, in hindsight, pretty thankful for that COVID season because I got an extra year under my belt, and I think that just gave me a ton of confidence.”

Ahead of the Olympics, Wong-Orantes earned “best libero” honors at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball National League in Rimini, Italy, which helped secure her spot on the Olympic roster. In Tokyo, she followed up with another standout performance and was named best libero of the Olympic tournament.

As to how the Wong-Orantes transformed into one of the world’s top liberos, she points to her background as a beach volleyball player. She began competing at age 8, and her first partner was Sara Hughes, a star on the AVP Pro Tour who also won two NCAA titles with USC.

“I think having that background and just the court awareness that beach volleyball forces you to have allowed me to really have a good read on the game,” said Wong-Orantes. “I think that’s what makes a great libero is just reading and always being reactive towards the ball.”

Wong-Orantes also credits the assistance of mental coach Sue Enquist, a former UCLA softball coach and U.S. national team coach, who now helps teams work on their culture and relationships. Enquist began working with the U.S. volleyball team during the pandemic and has continued in her role ever since.

“We just worked on a lot of stuff within ourselves, within our program, how to communicate with each other off the court, and I think that honestly propelled us into such a high, high level with how we worked with each other, and then that transferred onto the court,” explained Wong-Orantes, who noted the team has Enquist on speed dial while at the World Championship. “I really commend Sue. I just really give a lot of praise to her because I think our culture was never bad, but I think [she] just transformed into a different level.”

2022-09-26 - FIVB Volleyball Womens World Championship 2022 - Day 4
ARNHEM, NETHERLANDS – Justine Wong-Orantes (far right) poses for a photo with her U.S. teammates after defeating Canada at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship on September 26, 2022. (Photo by Rene Nijhuis/Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Wong-Orantes said she and her U.S. teammates are on their toes for the world championships, which features twice as many teams (24) as the Olympics and a “more grueling” format.

“It’s going to be a long tournament, and I think we’re really going to need all 14 of us that are here. I’m pretty certain that, at any given moment, someone’s going to be called on and someone’s going to need to step up in big moments.”

2022 Ascendant LPGA: How to watch, who’s playing in Texas’s annual signature event

Atthaya Thitikul of Thailand hits her second shot on the 16th hole during the final round of the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.
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The LPGA make its annual stop in The Colony, Texas, this week for the 10th edition of the Ascendant LPGA benefiting Volunteers of America, where Thailand’s 19-year-old rookie Atthaya Thitikul comes in hot off her second career win and second playoff victory this season at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.

Leading the 132-player field at Old American Golf Club, located at Golf Clubs at The Tribute, are Texas residents and past champions Cheyenne Knight and Angela Stanford. They’ll compete for the $1.7 million prize purse alongside major champions Nelly KordaLydia Ko and Brooke Henderson. Last year’s Ascendant LPGA champion, world No. 1 Jin Young Ko, will not be defending her title after announcing earlier this month she would be missing several weeks due to a nagging wrist injury.

This past weekend in Arkansas, Thitikul took the lead with a 10-under 61 in the second round and shot 68 in the final round to finish regulation tied with Danielle Kang at 17-under 196. Thitikul, who won the JTBC Classic in March in a two-hole playoff vs. Nanna Koerstz Madsen, drained an 8-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole to secure the win over Kang.


How to watch the 2022 Ascendant LPGA 

Coverage of the 2022 Ascendant LPGA from Old American Golf Club in The Colony, Texas, can be found on Golf Channel, with streaming options available any time on any mobile device and online through NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

  • Thursday, Sept. 29: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Friday, Sept. 30: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Saturday, Oct. 1: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Sunday, Oct. 2: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel

Who’s playing in the 2022 Ascendant LPGA

Six of the top 10 players in the Rolex World Rankings are among the field in Texas, including:

  • No. 2 Nelly Korda
  • No. 4 Lydia Ko
  • No. 5 Atthaya Thitikul
  • No. 6 Brooke Henderson
  • No. 7 Lexi Thompson
  • No. 10 Nasa Hataoka

A number of local Texans also are in the tournament, headlined by past champions, Angela Stanford (2020) and Cheyenne Knight (2019), and two junior champions of the Volunteers of America Classic Girls Championship, who are playing on a sponsor exemption: Yunxuan (Michelle) Zhang (2022), a freshman at SMU, and Avery Zweig (2021), a high school sophomore from McKinney, Texas.


Past five champions of The Ascendant LPGA

YEAR WINNER SCORE MARGIN RUNNERUP
2021 Jin Young Ko (South Korea) 16-under 268 1 stroke Matilda Castren
2020 Angela Stanford (USA) 7-under 277 2 strokes So Yeon Ryu, Inbee Park, Yealimi Noh
2019 Cheyenne Knight (USA) 18-under 266 2 strokes Brittany Altomare, Jaye Marie Green
2018 Sung Hyun Park (South Korea) 11-under 131 1 stroke Lindy Duncan
2017 Haru Nomura (Japan) 3-under 281 Playoff Christie Kerr

Last time at The Ascendant LPGA

South Korea’s Jin Young Ko carded a final-round 69 to maintain her 54-hole lead at Old American Golf Club and held on for a one stroke win at the 2021 Volunteers of America Classic, her eighth career LPGA tour title. Ko finished regulation at 16-under 268, edging Finland’s Matilda Castren by one stroke.

It kicked off a five-win season for Ko, who had just lost her No. 1 ranking to Nelly Korda the week prior after holding the top spot for 100 straight weeks. She regained the No. 1 ranking back in October 2021, after earning her fourth win in seven starts at the BMW Ladies Championship.


More about Old American Golf Club

Opened in 2010, the Old American Golf Club is one of two clubs at The Tribute, a lakefront resort community on Lewisville Lake in The Colony, Texas. Designed by Tripp Davis and 12-time PGA Tour winner Justin Leonard, Old American plays as a Par 71 and stretches to 6,475 yards on the tournament scorecard.