Javelin thrower Kara Winger admits to succumbing to bouts of procrastination, but the nine-time U.S. national champion is adamant that it was not her intention for her final competitive season to become a display of “carpe diem” moments.
“I’m a procrastinator – 100 percent,” the 36-year-old Winger told On Her Turf. “I’ve said for a long time: The only place that I’m not a procrastinator is training and javelin, but apparently that’s not true within an actual competition.”
The Vancouver, Washington, native represented Team USA in four Olympic Games and six World Championships. But it wasn’t until her sixth and final throw this past July — in her final Worlds appearance — that Winger launched the throw that put her name in the record books, winning silver and becoming the first American woman to win a world championship medal in javelin.
“The larger ‘I’ve-decided-to-retire-this-season’ thing came just zooming straight to that one final throw,” she recalls of her final throw at iconic Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore. “Like, this is the absolute only time in my life remaining that I have the opportunity to medal, so I better do it now.”
The triumph at Worlds kicked off a crescendo of performances. In August, she captured the NACAC Championships (her second career NACAC title) in the Bahamas after throwing a season’s best 64.68m. Winger smashed that mark less than two weeks later with a 68.11m at the Brussels Diamond League stop, breaking her 12-year-old personal best to set a new American record.
“It was just such a perfect night: The conditions were incredible; the crowd was amazing,” she recalled of the Brussels meet. “I was so comfortable because it’s not world championships or the Diamond League Final. It’s just a meet where I know my body is on point and my technique felt really good, my series was good, like, why not take advantage of this moment?”
She capped her career with a victory at the Diamond League final in Zurich, where her winning throw of 64.98m became the sixth best of her career.
While making the podium at Worlds and unleashing the U.S. record at age 36 are among the highlights of her career, Winger says she would have stepped into retirement still satisfied that her career even without this year’s podium performances.
“The message has always been: There’s value in the journey even without medals,” she said. “So, when I got the medal and then all this cool stuff happened, I was like, ‘Oh, but it was already really amazing.’
“I think that’s maybe my favorite part – I’d already come to a place of absolute peace in my career and then all this stuff happened, and I almost still don’t believe it. … I hope that people still hear that I remember all of the moments before, as well. I always want that to be true and part of the focus.”
In fact, it was a lackluster performance at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 that resulted in what Winger considers the most special moment of her career when she was selected as Team USA flag bearer for the Closing Ceremony.
“To not make the final, [I was] just absolutely blown away by my teammates voting me flag bearer,” says Winger, her voice choking with emotion. “The coolest messages that I got were from people who had also never medaled at the Olympics that said, like, ‘This selection makes my journey worth it.’
“It’s always been about the community and the relationships for me … so it makes it feel more true to my journey than this ridiculous, unexpected cherry on top.”
Winger also considers her journey as a personal evolution, one that’s been marked by injury and resilience, but enhanced by the self-knowledge and confidence she gained through those struggles. She’s come back from two significant injuries in her career, tearing her left ACL at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials and then re-tearing it in 2020. But Winger saw the silver lining in the repeat injury, saying she “was familiar with the pain” and let that guide her rehabilitation and alleviate the fear factor.
“I had so much joy in every practice, being able to move normally again,” she said of her return to training. “… I forgot how much fun it was to not be injured, and that really informed the way that I trained. I just really enjoyed the running parts and the sprint mechanics and the things that I didn’t get to do in 2021 and was successful anyway, but I tried to really intentionally match those to the way that I threw in 2022.”
Winger noted she also took a more thoughtful approach to training, too, installing husband and fellow track and field athlete Russ Winger as one of her coaches for her final season.
“I was just really intentional about how I spent my time, knowing how fleeting that it was,” Winger says. “I think that’s something that I struggled with – I’m very much a giver with my time, but I was maybe more selfish than I’ve been in the past and that worked really well for me (this season).
“It’s not selfish, but as a woman, you just say ‘yes’ to a lot of different things, and I finally went to therapy and really thought carefully about where I was going to go, what I was going do and why… I wanted to have a great time. That was my expectation.”
By winning the Diamond League Final, Winger earned bye into the 2023 World Championships in Budapest if she wants to use it. But for now, she looks to begin the next chapter of her career as the senior director of integrated influencer marketing for Parity, an organization dedicated to closing the gender pay gap in sports.
Says Winger: “I guess it remains to be seen, but I just can’t think of any results that would make me more satisfied with my career.”
On Her Turf editor Alex Azzi contributed to this report.