IN OUR SPORT, infinitesimal fractions of seconds can be cruel. Even for those athletes whose astounding performances are measured with a tape rather than on the clock. Consider the case of Kara Winger, American Record holder in the javelin and a woman of irrepressible competitive spirit, evidenced by her 5th-place World Championships showing last year, her highest finish in 5 appearances since ’09. (Continued below)
“I’m OK, I’m OK. I’m better this week than last week, for sure. So, yeah. I’m OK,” said Winger as she sat down for this interview via Zoom. When we first reached out to her just after her first—and planned as likely only—meet of 2020, the Iron Wood Invitational where Valarie Allman broke the AR in the discus, we knew she had lofted the ninth-longest throw of her career. The 34-year-old’s 211-5 (64.44) sixth-round toss was her lengthiest ever as a season opener and capped just her second career series with two beyond 210-feet (64m). It was an outing rife with promise for the 7-time USATF champion who in pandemic quarantine had labored with love under the social-distanced eye of coach Dana Lyon to cast her javelin future as even better than her past.
We did not know Winger had felt a twinge in her left knee, her block leg, as she launched her series finale, nor did we know the joint had started to swell the next day. Having been through an ACL tear once before—at the ’12 Olympic Trials after which surgical repair was required—Winger had a queasy inkling. Diagnosis by Dr. David Weinstein, an orthopedist to Olympians in many sports, confirmed her suspicions. Winger revealed the discouraging news in an understandably teary Instagram video 3 days after incurring the injury.
Between Kara and husband Russ—who put the shot just under 70ft (69-10¼/21.29) as an Idaho senior in ’08—Weinstein has already operated on the family four times. Surgery No. 5, this time an ACL repair using a cadaver graft, is scheduled with Kara the patient for August 25. Please send prayers and good vibrations. As Kara revealed, speaking from the family home in Colorado Springs with yellow lab Maddie by her side, she has loved her event—the competition, the training, the travel, all of it—more than ever the last three seasons. Including this awful barely-a-campaign under pandemic.
Kara Winger will rise again, she says. The jav AR has been hers for more than a decade. It will not remain her lifetime best if she has anything to say about it. Nobody likes to start an interview on a blue note. For this one, 9 days post-Iron Wood, it was unavoidable after hellos and commiseration about the circumstances. Winger, it was readily apparent, is moving forward with good grace and unbroken passion for her craft.
With major meets to report on in tragically short supply amid the pandemic, we at least have the luxury of presenting this talk with America’s premiere spear thrower in a longer form than is usual for a T&FN Interview.
T&FN: What is the status of your knee?
Winger: Well I partially tore the graft that I’d had repaired in 2012, but apparently with a graft if you partially tear it, it’s likely that you will also stretch it out. So I still have an ACL, kind of attached but it’s not doing anything for the structure of my knee, for the function of it at straightening at the block.
It must be surgically repaired, and you say “a partial ACL tear” and there are a lot of stories about people overcoming that really well [without an operation]. But for me surgery is the plan.
T&FN: When and how is that going to work?
Winger: As soon as possible, but if you have a tear there’s swelling that goes into the joint, right. And if you go into surgery too quickly your body’s more likely to lay down extra scar tissue if you don’t let it calm down first. So recovery can be more difficult if you do that. So it’s like you walk before you run, you do prehab, you get the swelling out, you make sure your body’s ready for the surgery and then whatever trauma your body is facing is from the surgery rather than the injury itself as well.
T&FN: OK. I’m sure it’s not a fun thing to talk about, but I saw the videos of your throws. Obviously the first thing I saw were the marks and that was just awesome—for you to be getting back really close to that American Record level. Right as the Olympics should have been underway too. I’m not a javelin thrower or a javelin coach. Honestly, I couldn’t detect the instant when you injured your knee in the video. What did you feel?
Winger: Yeah. First of all, the Iron Wood Throwers Center was a fantastic environment for me just to have an opening meet like that at the very beginning of August in a really weird year. I was incredibly happy with quarantine training. I lifted on my deck all summer. I threw in a park by my house for months before I was allowed to go back to the Air Force Academy and throw on the track surface. So it was really fun to be creative in that way.
I’m weird like that. I really enjoy that challenge of keeping my training as normal as possible, but also the opportunity to do different stuff. Like I bought gymnastics rings and could hang them from my deck.
Also different drills on the TRX [suspension training apparatus]. I put it in my tree so it’s called “Tree RX.” Mostly shoulder rehab, core strength stuff. I had a back injury in college that I did a ton of TRX stability things on rehab-wise. But I’ve always loved home. I’m pretty much a home body and to be able to get all my work done physically and on the computer in the same place was super-fun for me all through quarantine. So I just really loved the preparation. I felt really good going into it.
My friend Sarah Walker—formerly Sarah Stevens of Arizona State, multiple-time NCAA champion, World Championships team member in 2007—is now the director of Iron Wood after Jarred Rome’s unfortunate death. I knew Jared well too, and I know that he would have been thrilled to put on this competition as well, but Sarah when I first called her was like, “Yeah, for sure let’s do this, have this small competition.” (Continued below)
So just going into it was really fun and comfortable and small. My parents were there, one of my high school swimming team captains was there and obviously everyone’s separate from each other as they need to be to follow recommended guidelines and stuff like that. But it was a really great atmosphere to do well after I knew that my training was successful in quarantine.
I felt so good that after 62.15 [203-11] on my third throw and then 64m [210-0] on my fifth round, I pushed it a little bit on the last throw ’cause I felt really good.
I was like, “Today could be the day that I finally PR after a decade.” And just kind of the same thing that happened in 2012 happened. What happened in 2012 and what happened on August 1st was, I get impatient with my right foot. I hit an impulse that last big step before my block. And if I’m impatient with my right foot, it kind of snaps back behind me too far and then I’m kind of falling forward onto the block.
With thousands of reps, I’ve done that in practice a bunch of times without an ACL tear. The same thing was true before 2012. But what it feels like for me is a hyperextension of that leg. That’s not what actually happens, but that’s what it feels like and that’s what it felt like in 2012. That’s why it was so confusing that it turned out to be an ACL tear because that just wasn’t my physical perception of the motion.
It didn’t hurt that bad in hyperextension, but just knowing that that’s the mechanism of injury that I had before made it pretty devastating when it started to swell the next day. I just couldn’t ignore the fact that I’d been through that before and that that’s probably what had happened. But in 2012 when I tore my ACL, I fell down and it was a more catastrophic injury. It’s not as big a deal when you tear it the second time, apparently, which is super-frustrating, but I only threw 56m in 2012 on the throw that I tore my ACL on. And that Saturday I threw 64.44.
So it still really sucks, but I just am so confident in the work that we did physically and technically now that I’ve had a little bit of time to face the injury that I know I can be creative and be successful in my comeback regardless of what that looks like. I’m way more experienced than when this happened the first time.
T&FN: So you’ll have surgery. Is it too early to start mapping out a timeline?
Winger: In a word, yes. It’s too early. Everyone says it’ll be easier the second time. That includes the athletic trainers that I work with that are phenomenal. There’s a lot of the same people that I went through most of my first rehab with, which is both comforting and also devastating to see them again. It’s not like I didn’t maintain rehab. Rehab is my life and I did absolutely everything I possibly could have to prevent the injury so that it feels the most unfair for sure of all the injuries that I’ve had.
But I also can see how much of a fluke it might’ve been. Just the timing of it is so minusculely different from every throw I’ve ever taken. And the fact that I’ve torn my ACL twice throwing the javelin but I’ve been throwing the javelin for more than half of my life means it’s just been simply a very small chance.
T&FN: A fluke but a damnably cruel fluke.
Winger: When I went for my evaluation on Wednesday, I was in the room where they framed the picture that we signed and gave to them because Dr. Weinstein’s done four surgeries on the Wingers. Now five, I’m catching up to Russ’s three. I was pretty darn devastated sitting in that office, but looking at that poster was really helpful ’cause I’m not with Russ that much, but I will be in this rehab and he has not only nursed me back to health, post-ACL surgery the first time, but also shoulder surgery.
T&FN: What do you mean you’re not with Russ much?
Winger: He is a fly fishing guide. So in a normal [summer] I would also be in Europe so he’s in rural Wyoming and I’m in Europe. And we just take a lot of advantage of the time that we have together, but it’s fairly limited. So I just am demanding attention with an injury. He’s wonderful. (Continued below)
T&FN: We certainly don’t want to talk only about your injury. Before I knew about it I wanted to ask you about throwing so close to your AR 10 years later and in this strangest of all seasons. Did you see clues as you prepared without any competition feedback that you might throw so impressively?
Winger: Well, I’m glad that you’re impressed by the distance, but actually I’m also super-happy with the series, throwing over 64m twice. That’s what I’ve been looking for in my career—just a little bit more consistency at those 64m distances. So then maybe there can be a jump to something even further than I’ve ever thrown. ’Cause I’ve never been consistent at mid-60s. It’s been like maybe 60m [196-10], maybe 62 [203-5]. So if that’s kind of a baseline I would be thrilled.
Obviously I have an uphill battle to get back there now, but just the technical things that Dana and I did work on that I didn’t actually do in that competition are just so much more repeatable for me in training. And that’s what’s been super-fun about the past few years working with her.
T&FN: What is your routine and who makes up your full coaching team?
Winger: My strength coach of 11 years, Jamie Myers, he writes all of my training, all my programming. So Dana is my technical coach kind of only, and obviously that’s a huge, important piece of what I do and has been the massively better component of my training since 2017—when she agreed to be my coach, finally having eyes on me again. ’Cause I was mostly just sending video to my old technical coach before that and training by myself. So to have her with me every throwing session is phenomenal, and I knew that objectively before but it was just the natural right time to make a switch to a different coach.
Anyway, a normal week: I have basically 3 throwing days a week and 2 lifting days with a Saturday recovery day. So on Monday, Friday, I’m throwing javelins maybe and doing approach work and footwork and drills and stuff. Tuesday, Thursday, I lift. And those are two different lifts focusing on different movements. And then Wednesday of that week would be a ball day. So that’s a lot more volume, a lot more drill stuff, sprinting, more kind of beefing up the systems that I use to throw the javelin. But it’s a little bit easier on the body than throwing javelins. And then Saturday is like more long-distance running. I’m swimming if I can. That’s my favorite but I haven’t been able to swim all of quarantine. And gymnastics and core stuff. So shoulder stability, shoulder mobility, core training, and then Sunday is rest day. And then the week after that I would switch the ball and javelin days—so do ball day, Monday, Friday, and javelins on Wednesday.
T&FN: Dana, of course, is a former competitor—runner-up when you won at the ’08 Olympic Trials and now the Air Force throws coach—Does your enhanced understanding of your throw come from working with her or just experience, or what?
Winger: Mostly working with Dana, just having different perspective has been phenomenal. She really challenges me to change things that I never thought I guess were a problem. Or I was just told, “This is how you throw, so that’s how we’re gonna grow.” Instead we’ve been able to switch stuff up.
I know you said you’re not a javelin thrower, but in the javelin community—not necessarily the whole group—I always have a couple people that comment on my angle of release, the way that it flies. And that’s one big thing that I’ve never wanted to address because if I change the angle of my throw, the feeling of it will be totally different. And then will it still be my throw? Will I have as much connection to the implement and therefore generate as much power? I don’t know. But now I have an opportunity to focus on that maybe and fix something that has been a glaring issue for a lot of people about my own throw.
T&FN: What has been the beef about your angle of release? Is it too high, too low, what?
Winger: It always looks like it flies pretty well from where I’m standing after I let it go, but when you watch from the side it’s kind of clear that I’m splitting vectors a little bit, so maybe I can fix that.
T&FN: What does Dana say about that?
Winger: We haven’t quite talked about it yet. That’s secret, but she has a couple of other things that she’s been saving technically to address with me. And I think one of them that I do know about could help that angle as well: Just moving my body around the javelin a little bit differently than I’m moving the javelin around the body, if that makes sense. Like an Olympic weightlifter moves their body around the bar, not necessarily moves the bar super-far but it moves fast.
I think I could just think about the throw a little bit differently within the context of what I’ve learned from Dana, which is a lot.
When I asked her to be my coach, I said, “If you at 5-2 [1.58] can teach me how to throw the javelin at 6-feet [1.83] tall, we’re going to be unstoppable.”
And I feel like I’m still learning that, her little tips and tricks that she used to maximize her tiny little frame and throw 59.92 [196-7], still one of the top all-time American women’s javelin throws.
T&FN: Amazing. Mighty mite athlete. Interviewing field athletes—vaulters are a great example—I’ve come to recognize how hard it is to put a complex motion sequence into words. Often because the physics must be personalized to the athlete to maximize performance. Can you say, “OK, this is how a javelin throw should be executed,” or is it too idiosyncratic from athlete to athlete for that?
Winger: It’s fairly personal. I’m sure as in the vault, there are like three or four things that are really important, but the way that you get there is what is personal: idiosyncrasies in your approach and different rhythm things that are important. But with a vaulter, from what I know, acceleration is also important and bottom arm. So like two things can help you jump really high. The javelin is similar: acceleration in terms of right to left ground speed.
And for me a consistent thing in my ACL tears was a little bit slower right to left because of my impatience with that right foot. So there are things that I know will make my knees safer and my throw better—just mistakes that I’ve always made that cause injury when you’re moving at a high speed. So it’s an individual thing, but there are a couple really important, consistent cues that everybody needs to pay attention to.
T&FN: As we all know, the income pyramid in our sport is like a needle. Reductio ad absurdum, you’re not in the Usain Bolt income bracket. You must run on intrinsic motivation and you have for more than 10 years as a post-collegiate thrower. I don’t believe you have a shoe company sponsor.
Winger: Right. I did for a long time and I’m a saver. So that was really helpful to not only have sponsorship at the beginning of my professional career, but also do really well and be financially rewarded for it. My savings are in great shape. I bought my house about a year after moving to the Springs. So it was really interesting in quarantine actually to see people that are in tiny apartments and just doing the best they can. But to have a husband that could build me the individual parallel bars for gymnastics. He welded us a bench and upholstered it himself. So we have an absolutely beautiful, large size weightlifting bench in the basement.
And someone had a sale on a half rack. It’s called the Off Grid Rack and proceeds from it went to COVID-19 relief. Coaches vs. COVID-19, I believe was the program. Russ installed that on the deck, as well. So I call it Muscle Deck. At some point we’ll replace the deck, but it’s like 30 years old falling apart and the perfect place to drop weights on during quarantine. So I just felt like my life had prepared me for the global pandemic and training through it.
Part of that was community, as well, ’cause I was able to borrow equipment from the Training Center. So yeah, that’s the quarantine part and the motivation and just feeling so supported in this crazy time, but to have also gone through these steps in life that meant I had a home that I could spend time working in a bunch of different rooms and never get bored of my own house instead of being in a tiny apartment.
I could just do absolutely everything that I needed to do plus have arguably better nutrition ’cause my kitchen is right there right after practice and I make a sandwich. So the timing of it was phenomenal, it was great. I had a great quarantine.
Motivation wise, I struggled a lot. 2016, 2017 was really hard for me. That was at the end of my first technical coach, our relationship. I had always attributed not feeling my best at the times that were most important to always recovering from injury. And I know that that was part of it, but moving into working with Jamie writing my programming and Dana being my coach, it was just so refreshing to have more input on what was going on in my career. It’s phenomenal to feel listened to and have the confidence that grew so quickly writing my warmups and writing drills and figuring out what works for my body. I knew objectively that I had enough experience, but I just wasn’t confident that I would be effective in my own writing of programming.
So very quickly after becoming the team that we are, it was just so much more fun again. And then it got even more fun when I did well when I was supposed to do well. Plus I just made a decision to really soak up every experience that I could in team situations and when traveling by myself.
So I started going on more training camps where I’d find a really fun Airbnb in a vineyard in southwest Germany, a place where there’s phenomenal javelin, and just kind of making that stuff happen. I had been doing that for a few years, but my attitude shifted enough that it was just super-fun again. Part of that is feeling listened to, part of that is just being open to more experiences that aren’t necessarily about javelin but come about because of the career that I have.
When I hurt myself last week, that was what made me most sad—that for like a couple of years now I’ve just loved the process and loved the travel and loved the sport again.
And I’m not ready to be done with it. Accomplishments wise, all that, I could walk away and be satisfied. It’s just fun again. And that’s what I will miss. I took the opportunity in quarantine to prove to myself that I’m just here to see how good I can be, and be motivated every day by that rather than, like, the Olympics. It was really cool to prove that to myself.
I’ve been saying that for awhile: it’s not about performance. It’s about loving the process and loving the people that I’m going through the process with. So yeah, that was instantly my greatest sadness. It’s not about me. It’s about this community that is such a blast to be a part of and perform within. That’s what I’m not ready to let go. So it’s super-easy to be motivated when you have phenomenal people around you.
T&FN: You’ve talked about your local team, and obviously that includes Russ. But you mentioned Germany. When you’re at that Airbnb in southwest Germany, are you with other javelin throwers and coaches?
Winger: It’s a training facility, yeah, but staying by myself, meeting people for meals and stuff like that. That’s definitely part of it. I went to Norway last year and stayed with Sigrid Borge. She’s Norwegian, their best javelin thrower right now. I met her the year before. She’s so much younger than me, but we just instantly connected and she’s my good friend. I asked, “I’ve always wanted to come to Germany or to Norway. Can I come visit you next year?”
She said, “Absolutely, we’ll do it.” So I stayed with her family for 10 days on a little western Norwegian Island. They have a cute little club. There’s not that much going on, but they love it, they support it. And again, that was my instant biggest sadness, ’cause I’ve absolutely loved those experiences and those women around the world. They understand you more than a lot of people because they throw the javelin.
It’s this weird thing that unites all of us. It isn’t the only thing we have in common. I’ve absolutely loved those trips, those experiences, those friendships that develop. And facing the necessity of selfishness in a recovery process means that I don’t get to do that next year. I have to stay home and focus on getting better. And I love that process too, but I’ve just been having so much fun traveling and being healthy that I’ll miss it really badly.
T&FN: That’s beautiful, the track & field tribe. When you mentioned throwing in a park earlier I meant to ask about that. How did folks react to coming across a world-class javelin thrower in action? Any strange reactions?
Winger: Yeah. And not strange. Mostly like, “That’s so cool. That’s really fun to see.” This man walking his dogs, I saw him a bunch of times. One of the first couple of times that he was there when I was practicing, he said, “I’ve lived here for 30 years near this park. We walk here every day and I’ve never seen somebody…” Well, there’s never been a global pandemic and Colorado is a state that doesn’t have the javelin in high school. It’s difficult to find a place to throw. There’s one track that has a high jump apron. That’s much shorter than a runway and it’s not even connected to the track surface. There’s a little curb in between. So I didn’t even actually try to find a place to throw off of the track surface.
The park and throwing in the grass was a better option for me. You know, at 34 grass is a lot easier on your body impact-wise. We don’t get that much moisture in Colorado, so it’s pretty dry, pretty good, I only slipped a couple times blocking in the grass. And I really do think that extra time outside, even if it was in the grass, was really great for my training. But yeah, it was really fun to have random people walk up and be like, “What is that?”
During one of my last sessions that I went back to the track, there were two little boys that were playing basketball and it was so interesting ’cause they ran right up to me—but stayed the appropriate distance away. They were like, “What is that? That’s so cool.”
I was like, “These are javelins.” And they said, “Can we try it?” I was like, “No, because of the times that we’re in, coronavirus, I’m not going to let you try, but I’m happy to answer any questions that you have.” They were just super-respectful, they didn’t pressure me to let them try. They didn’t get any closer to me. They were this like generation of understanding that was so cool to talk to, and they stayed interested even after they couldn’t try it. So the opportunity to expose more people to javelin was super-fun for me. (Continued below)
T&FN: You had your highest-ever World Championships finish, 5th, in Doha last fall. What did you take away from that as you entered into what woulda-shoulda been an Olympic year?
Winger: I didn’t pick up a javelin again in 2020 until February. And I was feeling fairly unprepared for 2020. It was weird for me in 2019 to finish the season happy with my performance and healthy. Typically I’m disappointed or injured in an off-season. So I was able to rest and just recover and wait for 2020, but it was more difficult than it’s been in the past.
I was just like, “Let’s keep building on this momentum.” And I think that took a little bit more of a mental toll on me than I understood going into 2020. So the fact that I did well at a weird [because of its timing] World Championships, I was excited about that. I was like, “This is different than it’s ever been before and I’ve never done what I wanted to do at Worlds. So why don’t I take advantage of that [switch-up in the schedule]?
“And that’s exactly what happened. It was super-super-fun to be 5th and—not throw as far as I wanted to in the final but—improve at the end of the final. It was a very fantastic experience. So 2021 Olympics feels the same way, if it happens, fingers crossed. It’s a weird year to have an Olympics.
It’s a totally different situation now. It’s completely different as far as my knee and all that, but just having those slightly different experiences has worked really well for me in the past couple of seasons. So we’ll see what happens.
T&FN: Your timeframe for rehab is an unknown at this early stage. But you have back-to-back championships years through 2024—if you want to stay in the game that long.
Winger: I know. I was excited about extra time to prepare for 2021. Now it feels like there’s absolutely no time because of my injury, but that’s exactly right. The 2022 Eugene World Championships became my retirement plan really quickly. It was going to be 2021 but then I get an extra year, and like I said, that was comforting ’cause I’ve been having so much fun. So that’s still my retirement plan. And I’m from Vancouver, Washington, that’s my hometown. So every time I have a meet in Eugene I have just massive amounts of people in the stands that dragged down to watch me. I just couldn’t imagine a better retirement scenario to have a fantastic 2022 and then walk away completely satisfied.
So with my knee, that’s even better timing for me than the 2021 Olympics. But I don’t see why I can’t do this recovery better than I did the last one. I remember being really jealous of people that hadn’t had patella grafts for ACL [repairs]. I was rehabbing around skiers and stuff and they typically do hamstring grafts ’cause they use their patellas more in the tuck position than I do going down the runway. In 2012 as a 26-year-old, it was better to do my own tissue for the graft. Statistically, it does better in the recovery process
This will be a cadaver graft and I’m excited about not having patella pain in the recovery process. That was kind of the biggest thing [after the first knee repair]. When I would hit a block that was slightly bent, I’d have pain in the front of my knee on the graft area. So I think it’ll be easier with someone else’s tissue, and mine has failed me twice. So let’s try someone else.
T&FN: Worth a try. I’ve kept you for so long, but can’t let you go without asking about having a former elite athlete as your spouse and what that brings to your life and throwing?
Winger: Yeah, so I had a similar experience with Russ when I had my shoulder injury. It was really devastating and that one was totally not under my control either, but we’re very different in how we like approach disappointment and stuff like that. Last week when I was just in and out of sobs all the time and I didn’t know what was wrong yet, he’d be like, “Kara, you don’t know what’s wrong. Let’s calm down.”
And I was like, “I can’t. I’m having a really hard time.” But then as soon as I had an answer, he’s super-understanding and sympathetic. That’s who he’s always been for me—my very realistic motivator. ’Cause I know that in the recovery process, as soon as I have a signal that I’m ready to push or something, maybe I’m still going to feel sorry for myself a little bit.
“He’ll be the one that says, “You’re ready, you’ve got this.” And he’s never going to lie to me about that stuff. So that’s always been one of my favorite roles that he plays. He’ll tell me if I’m not ready, but [if I am ready] he’ll also be like, “No, stop being a wimp and go.” That’s how his belief comes out. He’s going to be my comforter when I need him to, but he’s also fantastic at making me absolutely sure that I’m ready to push forward on something. ’Cause he knows me better than anybody. He knows when I’m just feeling sorry for myself and he’ll calm me down.
I know this has been all about the injury but when I called him and was inconsolable on the phone before I even came home to get it worked on, my initial reaction was it was too hard the first time. I know how long it took me to get back and I might as well just be done being a javelin thrower.
I think you need to go through that dramatic response sometimes and then get a little bit of perspective. And some of the swelling leaving really helped too. But when I initially called him and was really upset, he was like, “Kara, It’s going to be OK, no matter what.”
Well, “You’re right. If I succeed again or if I don’t we’ll be OK,” and that’s not necessarily because he was also an elite athlete. It’s just ’cause he’s a phenomenal husband. I’m just super-grateful to have him and our dog and our house. I love the place that I’m at in my life. And as an athlete, to see those things come together at the same time in the last couple of years has been incredibly fun. To also have this atmosphere in my home that I’m just super-happy and supported in is really great.