By GUY RAMSEY, UK Athletics
LEXINGTON, Ky. – A secret can be a frightening thing for the parents of an 18-year-old, and Shane Winstead knows her daughter Madison has them.
Madison – a current senior at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School – is a signee pledged to join the Kentucky swimming and diving team next season, a culmination of years of work and sacrifice. The moment she hits the pool for her first meet will be a source of incredible pride, and one she can’t wait to share with her family, especially her mother.
But Madison literally cannot afford to wait for her first meet, which would take place in the fall under normal circumstances.
Last January, Shane was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer with liver metastases. Then last June she received the news that the cancer had spread to her lungs. There are no guarantees she will be healthy enough to watch Madison swim in the fall.
That’s where the secret-keeping comes in.
This winter, Madison reached out to the UK coaching staff about the possibility of competing in a meet this spring to make sure Shane could be there when she wears a Blue and White cap for the first time. Neither of her parents knew a thing about it, other than a five-minute conversation she had with her father Keith months ago originally broaching the topic.
“I just really wanted the opportunity to wear a UK cap and to guarantee that she was going to see it,” Madison said. “So why put it up to chance in the fall when I knew if we did it an April while the whole team is there, then we’d be sure that that was going to happen. And they took that idea and ran with it.”
After Madison originally contacted the UK coaching staff headed by Lars Jorgensen, she didn’t hear anything for a long while. Knowing it would take an NCAA waiver to make it happen, she had pretty much given up on the idea.
“Next thing I know, NCAA cleared me to swim in it,” Madison said.
On Friday, April 22, Madison will participate in UK’s Blue-White Intrasquad Meet. And the secret’s out: Shane will be there.
Change of plans
The nation’s 39th-best swimming recruit and member of a 2016 signing class that could prove to be program-changing, Madison is among the best high-school breaststrokers in America.
Swimming at the next level, however, was not preordained.
She was good at pretty much everything she played as a youngster, once harboring dreams of playing college basketball that were by no means farfetched. Madison was just too good in the pool though.
“I was going to quit swimming when I was 12 to play AAU basketball because at some point you gotta play the sport year-round,” Madison said. “You’re just not going to get where you want to be. So I was going to quit that summer, got third in state in both my breaststroke events and then my 50 breast was 18th in the nation. So my coach just pretty much said you can’t quit swimming.”
By the time she was a high-school freshman, she knew swimming in college was her future, just not at UK.
“I never gave UK much of a chance because I thought it was home,” Madison said. “Why would I want to stay home? And then when my mom got diagnosed was the first time I said, OK, I’ll visit UK.”
From there, it didn’t take long for Madison to fall in love.
“That’s when I realized all I ever wanted in a college was right there in front of me,” Madison said. “So it’s not just I was staying because she was diagnosed, but because she was diagnosed I realized what I had in front of me.”
The interest she had from upwards of a dozen other high-level college programs mattered little at that point. The mix of personalities on UK’s coaching staff, Southeastern Conference football, an athletics department committed to excelling in all sports, a highly ranked pharmacy program and, most of all, her future team were too much to pass up.
“Team chemistry was the biggest thing,” Madison said. “I visited like 13 schools. Didn’t meet every team, but met a lot of the teams and just no one gets along like the UK kids do.”
She committed to UK last April and signed in the fall.
Facing it together
The Winsteads talk about cancer just a little bit differently.
The mother of two who recently celebrated her 25th wedding anniversary never uses the word “I” when she talks about her diagnosis and treatment.
“When we were first diagnosed—we, I use that a lot,” Shane said. “Like we’re all in chemo. It’s kind of a weird thing, but I just find myself doing it all the time.”
So does her family.
“We say we for everything,” Madison said. “We all have cancer and we’re all going through it together.”
Shane – a longtime pharmacy specialist and eventually director of clinical pharmacy services at UK HealthCare and faculty member at the College of Pharmacy – is not facing cancer alone.
It’s with that attitude that she approached the surgery and chemotherapy her doctors at the Markey Cancer Center were confident would lead to remission. It’s with that attitude that she coped with the news that her prognosis had worsened.
“My oncologist was, I would say, brutally honest with us,” Shane said. “I appreciate him for that, for not painting this unrealistic picture. But that’s when we realized that—essentially the way we talk about it now that cure is not really something we plan on or that we can realistically expect out of the treatments we have available. None of them will ever be able to get rid of all the tumors we have.”
Madison has always been mature for her age – “wise beyond her years” as her mother puts it.
She handled her mother’s cancer diagnosis accordingly.
“When she was diagnosed, we talked about how for her the world was going to stop as we know it. Obviously she’s not working anymore,” Madison said. “Her whole focus turned into what’s going to make her healthy, what’s going to make her happy.
“But for me, my world wasn’t going to stop. So at some point you have to find the way to change it in a way that’s going to make our family the best it can be. But also, I can’t drop out of school. I couldn’t quit swimming because it’s the only thing that keeps me sane.”
Although Madison recognized she had no choice but to go on with her life – with eight-hour chemotherapy sessions every other week spent at Shane’s bedside added to her routine of early-morning swims and late nights studying – she never fully processed the reality she now faced. It wasn’t until the most trying summer of her life that she did.
Shane’s cancer had spread, but Madison soldiered on. She continued to dominate meets, but her times weren’t up to her lofty standards.
“I just never trained well the whole summer,” Madison said. “Every meet I went to was subpar. Every practice I had was subpar.”
It all came to a head in San Antonio, Texas at July’s Junior National Meet. She was seeded third but finished 15th in 100 meter breaststroke event and failed to make a final in any other event.
“It was really the first time since Madison started swimming that she didn’t meet the goals she had,” Shane said. “I mean, honestly, I think it was the first time that she had not done what she wanted to do. And it was hard to see her go through that. There was really nothing I could do as a parent to help.”
Some good did come of it though. At long last, she faced the fact that her mother’s cancer was having a profound effect on her.
“It wasn’t until I had that meet that I realized this is actually a very stressful thing in my life and if I don’t confront the fact that I’m going through this, I’m not going to get through it,” Madison said. “You can’t just go around all the obstacles all the time. You gotta go through.”
Sun Shall Shine
Two of Shane’s friends were in Florida last January when they learned of her diagnosis. Watching the sunset that evening, one of them texted Shane with an uplifting message for her battle with the illness: “Shane’s sun shall shine.”
The phrase stuck with her all the way until March, when Shane and Keith spent some time of their own in Florida. Watching that same sun set over the Gulf of Mexico, she had an idea.
“We’re watching this beautiful sunset and I’m in tears and it’s just so emotional and so beautiful,” Shane said. “I just realized how much that meant to me. I got this idea to challenge my friends to share pictures.”
Her Facebook and Instagram feeds have since been flooded with photos with the hash tag #SunShallShine. The pictures are nice, but they’ve come to symbolize more.
“I like the way it inspires to take that moment and appreciate it,” Shane said. “It’s not just about sharing the sunset.”
Sun Shall Shine has come to be the mantra that defines the way the Winsteads approach Shane’s cancer. Rather than dwelling on the dark times that they know lie ahead – which Shane is acutely aware of considering her medical background – they’re seeking to focus on the brightness of today.
“We don’t know when,” Shane said. “We don’t know what’s between now and then so it just doesn’t make any sense to spend the time that we have thinking about how it’s going to get worse. That’s going to happen whether or not we worry about it, so it’s really a matter of taking those days that we have that are good and stretching them out as much as we can, making the most of them and understanding that it won’t be like that always, but why worry about it now?”
And for Shane and Madison both, few days are better than meet day, especially this season.
Madison, not long removed from her first failure as a swimmer this summer, had a dazzling senior season. She swam blazing fast times as she worked toward February’s state high school meet and specifically the 100 breaststroke. Madison had finished second in the event in each of the previous three years.
Another second-place finish was not an option. Madison said she was going to win it and she did, as well as sharing Girls’ Outstanding Meet Competitor honors with fellow UK signee Asia Seidt.
“It wasn’t just about me at that point,” Madison said. “We’ve gone through this journey together. I’ve been swimming for nine years and I couldn’t have done it without them. My senior year was to kind of show them this is what we’ve achieved.”
Seeing the dream through
Coming to Kentucky has been a long time coming for Madison. It took countless hours studying, practicing and competing to make it happen, most of which Shane invested alongside her daughter.
That’s why Madison couldn’t stand the thought of taking the first step of her college journey without her mother.
“I had big goals for my collegiate swimming career and they were a huge part of visiting colleges, helping me figure out which one was right for me that I couldn’t imagine her not seeing that dream through,” Madison said. “It is hard to even think about how there might be some NCAAs she might miss and there might be SEC meets she might miss, but as long as I can guarantee she sees me in a UK cap, it would just make me feel better.”
True to her ever-optimistic nature, Shane is insistent that the Blue-White meet be a celebration.
“I don’t want it to be about cancer so much as it is about the message that we have,” Shane said. “And hopefully other people take that as in some way inspiring them to recognize that it can happen to any of us at any point.”
For Madison, it will be. She’s proud of the path she’s chosen. She’s eager for her mom to see her new team and coaches together for the first time, as well as many of her fellow signees who will make the trip for the meet even though they can’t compete.
“I picked this team and I picked this school and I picked this coaching staff for a reason,” Madison said. “It means so much that I picked a school that is doing this for me and my family. With that much support coming from the team and the coaching staff, I want her to see it carried out. This is an amazing place and I’m in a good place for the next four years, at least.”
The hardest thing for Madison is knowing there’s a good chance Shane won’t be there for all four of those years, but the sun will certainly shine come Friday.
“It’s going to be very emotional, not knowing how many meets she’s going to see but knowing at least this one she is going to see is going to be a bittersweet thing,” Madison said. “I’m going to be very excited that the people we love are all going to be there and I’m going to get to swim with my teammates, but obviously we’re doing this for a reason. It’s not a great reason, but hopefully people are inspired by it.”