When Madison Winstead, a Paul Laurence Dunbar senior who’s signed to swim at the University of Kentucky, got word that the NCAA cleared her to participate in the Wildcats’ intrasquad scrimmage on Friday, a sense of relief overcame the young woman who set a KHSAA state record in the 100-meter breaststroke this February. That’s because her mother, Shane Winstead, would be able to be there — something the Winsteads won’t be guaranteed for the duration of Madison’s career as a Wildcat.
Shane was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer with liver metastases in January 2015. In June of that year doctors discovered tumors in her lungs. Her prognosis was one that the Winsteads — Madison, Shane, husband Keith and Clayton, their 22-year-old son — initially met with negative emotion, but quickly moved past to embrace however much time they have left together.
“I thought, ‘Well this just isn’t very fun,’” Shane said. “Sitting around and feeling sorry for myself or feeling bad about what is going to happen or what we expect to happen in the future is just not the way that I want to live.”
Madison made sure Friday afternoon was fun for her family and the hundreds of fans at Lancaster Aquatic Center. She swam for Kentucky’s Blue team in four events — the 400 medley relay, 100 breaststroke, 400 freestyle relay and the 200 breaststroke, which she won.
She was “overjoyed” after both squads broke a meet-ending huddle with “Sun Shall Shine,” an uplifting mantra the Winsteads adopted last March, and after which this year’s intrasquad competition was named. It reflects the positive attitude the family has maintained throughout the most trying period of their lives.
“It was a lot of fun and I was just happy to have all my friends and family and to be with this team,” Madison said. “It was really cool.”
‘Can we please do this?’
In December, Madison approached UK about the possibility of her participating in a spring meet, so her mother could watch her swim in blue and white. She did so without her parents’ knowledge and not knowing how difficult it might be to arrange such a thing, let alone get cleared by the NCAA to compete collegiately while still in high school.
During her recruitment, she hadn’t revealed to UK’s coaching staff just how sick her mom was.
“I said, ‘Listen, I don’t know how much time she has left. Can we please just do this?,” Madison said. “I think it kind of took them by surprise. Being that raw, they realized how important it was to me that we try to get it done.”
UK assistant coach Derek Perkins took the idea and ran with it, Madison said, and did nothing to quell her excitement about it. The first conversation was the only time she discussed it with UK and Madison eventually got the impression that maybe they’d bitten off more than they could chew. By late March — well after her high school season had ended — she had nearly forgotten about it being a possibility.
But two weeks ago, Perkins revealed that she’d been cleared to participate and give Shane what might truly be a once-in-a-lifetime moment.
“The caliber of this, I don’t really know,” Madison said. “I know it’s pretty special.”
Celebrating small moments
The Winsteads’ battle with cancer became well-documented and widely known thanks to a story by Guy Ramsey, UK’s director of strategic communication, in which it was revealed publicly that Madison would get to swim in the meet. Dunbar teammates, students and staff have flocked to congratulate Madison at school since Ramsey’s story was posted on UKathletics.com. Shane was surprised by how often she saw people talking about the story on Facebook before she even had a chance to share it on her own wall.
Shane’s prognosis remains “pretty negative,” but her condition has stabilized in recent months. That’s something to cherish.
“We just take each and every moment and celebrate it,” Shane said. “Just the littlest thing. The fact that the tumors aren’t bigger. ‘They’re not smaller, but they’re not bigger, woo!’ ... It’s just kind of taking each moment that we can to see the positive in it because it’s just no fun the other way.”
Madison hopes the lessons she’s learned since her mom’s diagnosis — to cherish life, her parents and family — rubs off on others as she continues swimming.
“I don’t want to shove it down people’s throats, but I just want to live by what I’ve learned and hopefully lead by example, more than anything else,” she said.