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Kara Winger decided at age 10 that she wanted to be an Olympian, the result of watching fellow gymnast Kerri Strug land her iconic vault at the Olympic Games Atlanta 1996.
“I was like, ‘I’m doing this. I’m going to be an Olympic gymnast,’” said Winger, who grew up in Washington state. “But I was no good, and I started growing.”
Years later she’d find something she was not only good at but that would also take her to not one but, so far, three Olympic Games: the javelin.
Now with a successful 2019 season in the rearview mirror, a strong relationship with coaches Dana Lyon and Jamie Myers over the past two years and coming off a world championships in which she placed fifth — the highest result ever by an American woman — Winger is feeling good about gearing up for Olympic Games No. 4 next summer in Tokyo.
“It’s usually really easy for me to rest in the offseason,” she said. “After the 2018 season I was injured, so it was easy to rest, but in the past I’ve been so frustrated at the end of the season that it was nice to put the javelin aside. This year I’m healthy and I felt so good at worlds and did so well at the end of the year that I’m so ramped up. It’s been really hard to know that I have to rest and be patient, but I’m really happy in that place.”
Winger, now 33, became involved with track and field in high school and competed for the first time in javelin on her 15th birthday — an easy way to keep track of how long she’s been doing it, she said.
“They didn’t know how far I was going to throw, so I was in the JV section and ended up throwing farther than what won the varsity meet,” she said. “It was really fun, and I turned out to be pretty good at it.”
Winger went on to compete at Purdue and made her Olympic debut in 2008, finishing 41st. At the Olympic Games London 2012 she was 31st, and at her third appearance in 2016 she was 13th. In 2010, she set a new American record, then as Kara Patterson, with a throw of 66.67 meters that remains her personal best.
However, javelin throwing isn’t a strength of the U.S. in elite international competition. Only two U.S. women have ever medaled at the Olympic Games in the sport, starting with Babe Didrikson, who won gold in 1932 in the first Olympic women’s javelin contest. Kate Schmidt won back-to-back bronze medals in 1972 and 1976, but the list ends there.
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Kara Winger competes at the IAAF World Athletics Championships on Sept. 30, 2019 in Doha, Qatar.
Winger is an open book on social media, discussing everything from body image to an unfortunate pumpkin carving incident a year ago on her blog, and not long after the world championships she got real about what it’s like being a javelin thrower.
“I’ve been throwing the javelin a long time (18 years in total, actually), and there are moments when I wonder if my patience is an exercise in madness,” she wrote on Facebook, thanking well-wishers for their support. “If sticking (ha!) to something for so long without the objective outcome of medals that Americans expect is some kind of absurd delusion. If I’m wasting my life.”
Winger doesn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea, because she loves what she does and being able to represent the U.S. in her sport. Being a 10-year resident athlete at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, however, she is always reminded that the goal is to win medals. So far she hasn’t done that, at least not at a major global competition.
But the moments when that might start to get her down, she wrote, are fleeting because usually right after those thoughts creep in something happens that tells her, “Yes, you’re supposed to be here. It’s OK.”
That happened this summer after her peers voted her captain of the U.S. track and field team at the Pan American Games Lima 2019, and Winger went on to win a gold medal with a throw of 64.92 meters. It was her fifth-longest throw of her career, best since 2015 and surpassed the Tokyo Olympic qualifying mark. It was just the second time in her career she made the national anthem play, she said. The first was at a continental championship meet in 2015.
After making it to the final at the world championships last month in Doha, Qatar, Winger was up against a number of women whose personal bests were better than hers, which was now set nine years ago. Instead of allowing herself to be intimidated, as she had in the past, she stayed calm and had fun, and even though she said her technique left something to be desired it’s hard to argue with a best-ever result on such a big stage.
That Winger’s career is on an upswing is partly because of her work with Lyon and Myers. She said it’s a true team effort, and feeling like she has people listening to her has helped tremendously. She feels like she has more in the tank, and she’s hungry to set a new personal best.
“One of my biggest goals has always been to try and put American women’s javelin throwing on the international map, and I believed the whole time that I’ve been taking steps to do that,” she said. “But the nine years between setting the American record and now have been filled with a lot of challenges and I think people stopped believing that could happen. But I never did and the people closest to me never did.”
Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic and Paralympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.