The sun still shines

UK sophomore Madison Winstead swims the 100 yard breaststroke during the ‘Sun Shall Shine’ Blue-White intrasquad swim meet on Friday, September 29, 2017 in Lexington, Kentucky. The White team won 301 to 286. Photo by Arden Barnes | Staff

Curtis Franklin

Sophomore breaststroke swimmer Madison Winstead is no stranger to rising to the challenge.

As a freshman last season, she recorded a sub-minute time in the 100-yard breaststroke, the first UK swimmer to ever do so. But Winstead’s accomplishments in her first season as a Wildcat didn’t come without challenges – challenges unlike any that her competition or her teammates had to face. Winstead’s biggest challenge was one that went well beyond the swimming pool.

An article done in April 2016 by Guy Ramsey of UK Athletics told the story of Winstead, then a senior at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Lexington and a UK signee, gaining clearance from the NCAA to swim in Kentucky’s Blue-White Intrasquad Meet in the spring so her mother could see her swim at the collegiate level.

Winstead’s mom, Shane Winstead, had been diagnosed with stage four colon cancer with liver metastases in January 2015, and the Winstead family had no idea how much longer they may have with her. Swimming in the meet would be a way to ensure that Shane would get to see her daughter swim collegiately as a Kentucky Wildcat, a goal that Winstead had spent countless hours working toward.

Shane Winstead passed away later that year after her almost two-year battle with cancer. As if the transition from high school to college athletics wasn’t hard enough, Madison would have to fight through the pain of losing her mother during this time as well.

With the start of the season rapidly approaching in November, Winstead had her own doubts on whether she could still focus on swimming and compete at a high level through it all.

“After even thinking about going home and trying again the next year because it was just so much at one time, I just pushed through it, kept swimming, and did incredible and I was so proud of myself,” Winstead said.

Winstead received All-SEC Second Team and All-Freshman Team honors following her first year as a Wildcat, which she says is both an accomplishment and motivation heading into her sophomore season. Another motivation for herself and her teammates, she says, is the memory of her late mother, who the team honors through the phrase, “Sun Shall Shine.”

“Sun Shall Shine” was the mantra for Shane Winstead’s battle with cancer, coming from a text message from two of Shane’s friends who were watching the sunset in Florida when they learned of her diagnosis.

The saying has even grown to have its own logo, which Winstead has tattooed along her left side. It serves as a constant reminder, she says, of everything her mother taught her throughout the years.

Watching sunrises and sunsets has also become somewhat of a pre-meet ritual for Winstead, who says she and her roommate always go watch the sun set the night before a meet or watch the sun rise on the day of the meet. It’s her way of connecting with her mother and knowing that she is still with her and watching over her.

“It’s weird that the most beautiful sunsets and sunrises are always the day before meets or the day before travel days, so it’s just kind of my thing to go do because it’s meant so much to me,” Winstead said.

She admits that it’s hard not seeing her mother in the stands at meets anymore, but it’s been her teammates who have helped her in and out of the pool that has made the biggest of differences.

“In my hard times they supported me, and they let me have that time and they held my hand through it all. But then when it was time that I was like, ‘Okay, let’s get back in the water, let’s get back in shape,’ they were really good about helping me focus on swimming,” Winstead said.

The team chemistry was a major factor in Winstead choosing UK, which she says had better chemistry than any other team she’d been around. Now, that same chemistry is helping Winstead through a difficult time in her life, while still giving her the push she needs to be able to reach the heights she’s capable of reaching in the water.

“I could not, honestly could not, have done it last year, gone through the whole year, without them,” Winstead said.

Heading into her sophomore season, Winstead’s personal goals are the same of any great teammate: helping the team in any way she can. Despite her outstanding freshman season, Winstead knows that she’s capable of doing more.

“I hope that I only continue to get better and do more for this team and score more points, so that’s the goal… I have so many more points I could score at SEC, and that’s the goal – to score more points, help my team out, so that we could get third again or even move up and keep going,” Winstead said.

As Winstead sets out to accomplish her goals this year, she can only be reminded of how proud her mother was of her every time she set foot in the water. Her presence is like an eternal glowing ray of sunshine, guiding Winstead in what she truly loves to do.