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ACL Injury Interrupts Kara Winger’s Historic Run But Can’t Dampen The Javelin Thrower’s Spirit

By Karen Price | Sept. 04, 2020, 9:30 a.m. (ET)

Kara Winger reacts after the Women's Javelin Throw Final at the Lima 2019 Pan American Games on Aug. 9, 2019 in Lima, Peru. 

Kara Winger was feeling so good that early August day in Idaho.

The three-time Olympian was finally competing after many long, strange months, and the javelin was sailing out of her hand nicely and traveling for distances that made her happy.

She got ready for her last throw of the last round, and that’s where she ran into trouble.

“I’m feeling awesome so I’m going to be a little reckless and it meant I had some old habits creep up, and I did exactly the same thing with my legs as I did in 2012 when I tore my ACL,” said the 34-year-old native of Vancouver, Washington. “Despite all the rehab I still do and the attention I still give my left leg because it was so difficult to rehab that injury in the first place, it happened again.”

Winger is now looking at a second knee surgery in eight years, with anterior cruciate ligament repair scheduled for Aug. 25. There’s no timeline for when she’ll return to action, but the good news is that there isn’t any action to return to at the moment. And although it’s not easy to think about rehabbing such a difficult injury again, Winger’s ready for the challenge. 

“I mean, the delay of the Olympic Games felt like there was all this extra time to be great in 2021, and it instantly feels like there’s now no time whatsoever, but at the same time I’m absolutely prepared for the physical pain of the recovery process,” she said. “Just the knowledge I have about how the body recovers is so much better than the last time, therefore I anticipate feeling more confident early in the process as I start throwing again.”

The dramatic end to the dramatically short 2020 campaign comes on the heels of one of Winger’s best seasons ever. She won gold at the 2019 Pan American Games with a throw of 64.92 meters — her best since 2015 — that surpassed the Tokyo qualifying mark. Then at the world championships in Doha, Qatar, she finished fifth overall for the best result ever by an American women in the event at worlds.

She was all ready to go to Tokyo in 2020 and try to become just the third U.S. woman, and first since 1976, to win an Olympic medal in javelin, but COVID-19 put a stop to those plans. The longtime resident at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, said she was lucky when the lockdown started in that she was able to sign out equipment to take home. Her husband helped by beefing up their in-home gym, and Winger’s sport is also one that can be practiced solo and just about anywhere outside that has enough space.

“And my neighbors already knew I was a javelin thrower, so doing footwork on the path behind our houses wasn’t too weird to see,” she said.

After USA Track & Field canceled the last event that had been on the schedule for this summer, Winger said, she started talking with a few others about having something at the Iron Wood Throwers Center in Rathdrum, Idaho, and the August invitational was born. It was to be a good opportunity to see where she was at after months of throwing in the thin air of Colorado, and it was all going so well, until it wasn’t.

Winger held out hope that first night that the sensation she felt on her last throw wasn’t what she feared because she didn’t see any swelling right away. When it puffed up on Sunday, however, she knew.

As difficult as the next few days were, meeting with doctors and her team and learning the results of the MRI, Winger has since found a number of positives.

Fortunately she didn’t tear the repaired ACL completely, she said, but partially tearing the graft also stretches it out to where it’s no longer effective and requires surgery to fix. The procedure is also different now than it was in 2012 when she tore it the first time, she said, and they know more not only about repair but also rehab.

Another bright side, she said, is that she’s been throwing the javelin for 19 years and this is only her second major knee injury.

She also has the comfort of having already met the Olympic standard going into 2021. 
Plus, she said, she was able to throw 64.44 meters to win the event in Idaho, making it four seasons in a row in which she’s thrown over 64.4 meters, or 211 feet, 3 inches.

“I think the healthiest motivation I have is that I just love it, and that’s what made me most upset (about getting injured again),” she said. “I’ve loved the last three seasons with the team that I work with and train with and I’m just really embracing the team experience with Team USA and little training camps across the world with international throwers I admire and learn from. Just the whole experience of it right now is so fun now that I’m in the situation that I’m thriving in. That’s what I want to get back to. That’s my true motivation. Success is awesome, but just being part of a community and getting to go the places I go and make the friends I’ve made is my favorite part. I just want to keep being in it.”

Karen Price

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.

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Kara Winger