Kara Winger competes at the 17th IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019 on Sept. 30, 2019 in Doha, Qatar.
Three-time Olympic javelin thrower Kara Winger still remembers her first college track and field meet, but not quite for the reasons one might think.
She’d gone home for Thanksgiving, her first visit back to her native Washington State from Purdue, and played in a turkey bowl game with her friends. She broke her arm.
Her throwing arm.
“I had my stuff together when I called my coach later to tell him, and as soon as I heard his voice I started sobbing,” she said. “It was just a small fracture, nothing that required surgery. I didn’t even need a cast. But I ran stairs by myself and was very limited in my technique work, and then I still (set a personal record) in my first competition as a collegiate javelin thrower. It was maybe two meters better than my PR from high school. First time I threw over 160 feet in my career.”
It was a lesson, she said, in figuring out how to control what she could after making a mistake, owning up to making a mistake, and doing the work required afterward to make it better. Others were to follow during her time in West Lafayette, Indiana.
Winger knew that Purdue was going to be the right fit even though on the weekend she visited, she said, it was rainy, there was no football game and she didn’t go to any parties.
In fact, she joined her future teammates at a volunteer opportunity at a retirement home.
“They just made me feel really at home,” said Winger, who was Kara Patterson while at Purdue. “It was part that Midwestern vibe and part exactly who they are and the friends they still are today.”
Add outstanding academics, a big pond that felt like a small one and then-coach Rodney Zuyderwyk, who recruited her, to the package and it felt absolutely right.
One of the best parts of being on a Division I team, particularly a large team like track and field, at a Big Ten school, was the variety of people she got to know. Growing up in Washington didn’t give her the greatest exposure to diversity, she said, so she’s grateful for the opportunity Purdue gave her.
“I love that it exposed me to different pieces of the world and gave me a different social understanding, a different racial understanding, a different body type understanding; there was so much that was diverse and awesome about all these friends who were so different from me,” she said. “Stepping up to professional track has been the same thing. Everyone has something different they’re bringing to the table. It’s one of my favorite things to reflect on. People from all different backgrounds all getting to do the thing they’re best at, and everyone’s different and everyone’s crushing it. I love that.”
Winger was still at Purdue when she made her first Olympic team in 2008. To help prepare her for Beijing, where the qualifying rounds would be in the morning, Zuyderwyk scheduled her practices that summer for 8 a.m. She got used to getting up at 5 a.m. so she was moving around and ready to go and give it her all. And since all of her roommates and teammates were home for the summer, she also got used to being by herself. That helped prepare her for being in the Olympic Village, where everyone is so focused on their own processes and preparing to compete that it can feel lonely, she said.
Another great thing about Purdue was that although there were only a couple of U.S. Olympic athletes from her generation, there were international students competing for their countries. Getting to see fellow Boilermaker throws athlete Nedzad Mulabegovic, who competed in shot put for his native Croatia, in Beijing wearing the colors of his country was something very cool, Winger said.
Winger ended up being a three-time Big Ten champion and two-time NCAA All-American, as well as the NCAA runner-up in 2009. She was inducted into the Purdue Athletics Hall of Fame in 2018.
Yet another lesson she learned at Purdue?
That it only takes one throw to do something great.
For instance, at the Big Ten Outdoor Championships in 2008 Winger fell — very embarrassingly, she added — on the runway in warmups and sprained her left wrist. She went on to win the competition, beat her old record by five meters and ended up making the Olympic team.
Then in 2009, she went to her first USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships with no coach, wearing clothes she just bought at a sporting goods store and staying in a Motel 6. She wasn’t performing the way she hoped.
“On my fifth throw I just let it happen and I had another two-meter PR and got within .24 meters of the American record to win,” said Winger, who set a new American record of 66.67 meters the next year, a record which still stands. “It was a cool moment where I kind of realized how the whole college experience prepared me to deal with this very scary new alone again time. And that has manifested itself all the many years since.”