“I DON’T THINK I’ll ever be able to process it, to be honest.” Kara Winger, America’s farthest javelin thrower, had envisioned her last season as an athlete as one where she would say goodbye to the sport by enjoying the people, places and moments along the way.
What she didn’t expect was the best throwing of her life, but that’s what she got. “It just was a season full of trying to take advantage of each moment. And I don’t think with all of my injuries I’d ever been able to do that before. Having been so significantly injured early in my career, it was always that much scarier to attempt the limits of what was possible. I’ve heard so many people say, ‘Just show up and be grateful and you never know what can happen.’
“I feel like such a cliché for getting to have so many of those moments, but I truly was there to enjoy the experience and do my best and be happy to be there with the people I was with. That’s all I can attribute it to.”
At 36, the Washington native could look back on a more-than-full career: an NCAA runner-up at Purdue, she would go on to claim 9 USATF victories and make 4 Olympic teams and 4 World Championship squads. Along the way she earned 3 World Rankings. Projecting a little to include this year as the U.S.’s best, of her 16 U.S. Rankings, 9 were of the No. 1 variety.
She reveals that her farewell to competition was years in the making: “I decided at the end of 2017 I had to make a coaching change. I had just been frustrated for a number of years with not making finals consistently. Like, really, what was I doing?
“So when I made the change to Dana [Lyon] as my coach, I also decided at the time that Eugene would be my last World Championship. So I had already had great seasons with Dana and my best international results of my career before this year. The real hiccup was my second ACL tear. But I was really enjoying that finality already in 2020. Even with the pandemic, things kind of changed in terms of what I had to focus on. But I was already seeing the effects of deciding to be done after Eugene. 2018 and 2019 were phenomenal as well. I had already seen the benefits of deciding when my career would be over.”
That Winger would have a magical ’22 was not readily apparent. She had suffered the second ACL tear, followed by surgery, during 2020. With Lyon guiding her, she made a remarkable recovery in 2021, placing 2nd at the Trials. Then she made the decision that for her final season, she would be coached by her husband Russ, the now retired shot/discus thrower (with 6 U.S. Rankings in each).
At the USATF meet, she won her ninth title with a seasonal best 210-10 (64.26) — in light of her résumé, nothing surprising there. The silver at Worlds, though, that was big, the first-ever American medal in the event.
A couple of 4th-place finishes in the Diamond League meets in Chorzów and Monaco. Then to the Bahamas, where she improved her season best to 212-2 (64.68) in winning her second NACAC gold. A 3rd in Lucerne with a modest 188-0 (57.30) gave no hint what was coming in her last two meets.
At Brussels, Winger clinched her spot in the Diamond League Final with a bravura performance, hurling her spear an American Record 223-5 (68.11). “Once I secured my place in Zürich, I could just really relax. I can’t believe I got my PR again. To PR after 12 years [see sidebar] was wild. It’s unreal to me.
“When I was sprinting back to give Russ a huge hug, my second thought was, ‘It was an American Record!’ It didn’t even cross my mind at first. It was first of all, ‘I finally did it, I finally did better than I’ve done before!’
Six days later at the Weltklasse, she claimed her first Diamond Trophy, hitting 213-2 (64.98), the fifth-farthest meet of her career.
Then, with a free pass for next year’s Budapest World Championships in hand, she told all askers that she had not changed her mind. After spending more than half her life throwing the javelin, she was now retired.
“As of this moment, yes,” she laughed a week later in confirming the decision to T&FN.
The key to the season, to put it in a word, was probably trust, she explains: “I just trusted myself, trusted Russ, trusted Jamie [Myers, her strength coach of 13 years] and tried to have a good time at every moment. I really trusted myself and all of the technical input that I had from my college coach, Rodney Zuyderwyk; my first professional coach, Ty Sevin; and then Dana Lyon for the last four years. It really culminated in being able to communicate with Russ.
“What Russ really allowed me to do is be as emotional or contradictory or contrarian or whatever I needed to be to figure out what that technique was going to look like — because he’s my husband, because I know it’s unconditional, because we could go home and work through whatever argument that we’d had at practice.
“He was learning too. And he has known me for the entirety of my professional career — we started dating before I made my first Olympic team. So to have that absolute security in discussing what I wanted to do and what I knew I was capable of in a really honest, vulnerable way… Whether that’s me not being able to communicate in the past with people that aren’t my husband, or just finally getting to a place where I could be really honest with myself about what I needed, I don’t really know, but he was a huge factor. He gave me unconditional support through all of my injuries, through all of my ups and downs. So I just felt absolutely secure in who I was in the sport and was finally in a position to trust myself, and it came out at the best moments, over and over again.”
Has she filed the official paperwork with USATF to wrap everything up and be taken off the drug-testing list? She laughs. “I haven’t even googled that yet.” She’s understandably going slow there, saying, “It’s really just to leave my options open. What I do know about retirement is that it’s really hard to come out of it logistically, So I don’t want to rush into filing anything right now, but keep reflecting and be really sure when I do.”
Even without throwing her own javelin, Winger will be plenty busy looking ahead. She already works full-time as a senior director for Parity, a sports technology firm. Beyond that, “I would like to spend a lot more time outside in Colorado. And I would love to share my story. The message has always been there’s value in the journey even without the objective success that people are looking for.” And yes, there will be coaching in her future.
Looking back with a veteran’s eye, does Winger see anything that she would do differently in the sport? Not really. The lessons she learned along the way were instrumental in making her who she is now, she says. “Because of who I was around and how I learned to throw, my teammates and just valuing the whole experience instead of the results, it’s just been fun, and an absolute world-view changing experience the whole time. I don’t know if I would change anything. I know I didn’t do anything to cause my injuries. That’s just something that athletes go through.
“I treated people well because they treated me well too, and that just means I get to share so much of my journey with so many people. I’ve just loved the whole experience rather than just the results.”
She keeps coming back to being grateful. “I was so devastated after ACL No. 2 and to get to choose when I go out isn’t something I thought was going to be possible after that. I’m blown away that I got to do this year with the people I got to do it with.”
The ’22 campaign turned out to be much more than a great year for Kara Winger: “This was beyond my wildest dreams.”