For four-time Olympic javelin thrower Kara Winger, there is peace in missing Paris

For four-time Olympic javelin thrower Kara Winger, there is peace in missing Paris

EUGENE, Ore. — Kara Winger had a smile on her face, a smile worthy of a high school yearbook. She even shed a few tears as waves of pride overwhelmed her emotions.

She fought so hard to get to this moment. She was happy. Fulfilled. A silver medal dangled around her neck after the women’s javelin final on Sunday, the final day of the U.S. Olympic track and field trials.

“I’ve had so many years where I wasn’t (good) enough,” Winger said. “Not even not (good) enough, but just falling apart at the wrong time.”

The Olympic Trials are a scripted montage of triumphs. A celebration of dazzling achievements. A coronation of superstars. A collage of defiance in the face of adversity, a challenge that would crumble most.

Winger is among the celebrated. Her triumph was different, but still worth it.

She started throwing the javelin at age 18. This was her fifth Olympic Trials. She took a year off to heal, physically and emotionally, and came back because she still had some fire left, if only in the form of a burning question.

“Can I be 38 years old, believe in myself, trust my technique and perform at a fairly high level?”

Winger had set it up so that the American trials would provide the answer. A final test of her return. If she could, she would go to her fifth Olympics, her last Games. And this time her family and friends could join her. The farewell to her dreams.

If she couldn’t do that, she knew it was over. She could retire with a clear conscience.

This journey goes all the way back to 2020. Winger tore the ACL in her left knee, which for a right-handed pitcher is her blocking leg, the leg that stops her forward momentum and “transfers all the momentum into the upper body.” Eight years earlier, she tore the same ACL.

She recovered in time to compete in the Tokyo Olympics. She finished 17th, but did not make the finals. Her knee was healthy, but mentally and emotionally she was not yet recovered enough to trust it. At that point, she had been at it for 18 years, had endured multiple injuries, and had suffered countless heartbreaks. Her four trips to the Olympics ended the same way: she did not make the finals, with a broken heart on the doorstep of her dream.

So she decided that 2022 would be her last year. Because the pandemic pushed everything back a year, she had a world championship to aim for that year.

But something happened. Winger was amazing. The best she’d ever been.

She won eight meets in 2022, podiumed five times and never finished lower than fourth that year. In her previous healthy year, 2019, she won four meets, podiumed twice and finished fifth or lower five times.

By 2022, Winger had risen to No. 1 in the world. She finished second at the world championships in Hayward Field — America’s first-ever medal in the women’s javelin at the World Championships. Then, at a competition in Belgium in September 2022, she set a new personal best with a throw of 68.11.

“I hadn’t thrown a personal record in 12 years,” she said. “That throw was everything I ever imagined, which was so fun to actually experience.”

It was such a good year that they celebrated by riding jet skis in the Bahamas.

And then it was over. She had made a pact with herself, with her body. She walked away, went out on the highest note of her career. A Mariah Carey “Vision of Love”-esque high note.

But a funny thing happened a little over a year ago. Her training partner in Chula Vista, Mike Hazle, who is seven years older than Winger, gave her something to look forward to. He said that one day, when her throwing days were over, she would wake up and her body would feel good.

One day last spring she was walking her dogs.

“I’m just running up a hill,” she said, “and my knee feels great. My glutes feel great. My back feels great. And in the blink of an eye I was like, ‘Oh my god! Today is the day!’ I FaceTimed Mike right away, ‘I feel great!’ It was really funny.”

The seed for a comeback was planted immediately, but it only germinated later.

Did she leave the sport too early, just when she was finding her feet? Could she recapture the magic of 2022, even though she was older and had been away from the sport?

This time around, her relationship with javelin felt different. Her body felt good. The success of 2022 gave her a newfound confidence. She spent a year thinking about the perfect throw. She wanted to come at the sport she loves from this perspective, healthy and mature. The challenge of thriving on her mastery of the sport, an expertise proven in 2022, with the liberation of knowing she could walk away. Because she already had.

“This was much more of a choice than the whole 20 years I’d been doing it since high school,” Winger said. “I left in 2022 as No. 1 in the world. And everyone said, ‘Why would you want to mess that up?’ But I wasn’t No. 1 for 19 years. So it felt really weird to be done and wonder if I left too early. Now, maybe I did. Maybe I could have done better in 2023. But I’ve had so many years where it didn’t feel like a choice. I just kept the ball rolling. And this choice was a very conscious effort to prove to myself that I understood.”

Kara Winger

Kara Winger shows off her silver medal at the 2022 World Championships. She was ranked No. 1 in the world before injuries kept her from the sport. (Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

After sitting out the entire 2023 season, Winger was aiming to make it to the Paris Olympics. She purposely didn’t compete in enough events to earn a world ranking. It would all depend on hitting the Olympic standard, 64.00 meters, on one of her throws during the year and also earning a spot at the U.S. trials.

If she could meet the standard on the tests, it meant she was better able to achieve the one thing missing from her resume.

“I’ve been to the Olympics four times and never made it to the finals,” she said. “I know what that devastation feels like.”

Of course, it’s never a sure thing that a thrower will make it to the finals. It’s all about performing on the day that matters. Maggie Malone Hardin, the gold medalist in the women’s javelin at the trials, has made her career by delivering her best performances in Olympic years. For Winger, it’s the other way around.

Her career has been marked by injuries and missed opportunities. She had the talent and the know-how, but something always seemed to block her from her best performances when she needed them. Nerves. Maturity. Health. Pressure.

Was 2022 a fluke or was she blossoming? She had to know.

If she could hit a long line at the right time, when she had to, that was proof that it was possible.

Without that, Winger would know she couldn’t do it. She’d be fine with that truth, because she knows it. And if she doesn’t make the Olympic finals, she’ll have nothing left to prove in a sport she helped put on the map for women in America. Even now, girls come up to her and say they picked up javelin or pushed through injuries, driven by Winger’s inspiration.

So it was Paris or peace.

With that on the table, she trained for the trials. She threw at the NYC Grand Prix on June 9. Her best throw of 63.22 meters earned her first place at that competition. Then they went to the trials.

In three throws in the first round, her best performance was 63.01 meters, the highest in the field, giving her six throws to reach the Olympic standard.

Winger knew she was in trouble after the first three throws of Sunday’s final: 53.55, 56.69 and a foul. The goal of all this was to determine whether she had what it took to make the Olympic final this time. If she threw like this at the Olympics, destruction would befall her again.

But Winger knew what she was doing wrong. She could diagnose it and fix it. Plus, she felt tired. She’s 38.

That indicated that she needed more training.

“It just goes to show that you can’t just come back, you can’t compete a lot and still do really well. I think it’s really cool to prove that you have to be there on the day. Everyone. … I can’t take shortcuts and I’ve thought about that the whole process.”

Kara Winger

Kara Winger needed one throw at the U.S. Olympic Trials to reach the 64-meter standard. She fell 1.06 meters short on her final attempt Sunday. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

But if she meets the Olympic standard in any of the last three throws, she will have six weeks to improve her technique and fitness.

Throw #4 — 60.82. Throw #5 — 58.08.

Winger was on her last throw. The last hail mary of her career. She has done sixth round magic before. Her first American record, in 2010, was on throw No. 6.

One throw, the longest she’s managed since September 2022, to reach Paris. Or to be done with the sport she loves.

Throw #6 — 62.94.

Winger, the four-time Olympic javelin thrower and mainstay of the US women’s javelin, is done with it.

“I didn’t prove to myself what I needed to prove to myself,” she said, “and I’m okay with finally being truly retired. Riding off into the sunset feels different this time because I satisfied my curiosity. Either way, I had to figure out, ‘Can I do this again or can I not?’ I knew I could, but I didn’t. So I’m all set. I’m good.”

She won’t be going to Paris. Her career will end without ever reaching an Olympic final. But in 2021, Winger was chosen by her Team USA teammates to be the flag bearer for the closing ceremony. She was the fourth athlete to lead the U.S. delegation and the first in nine years.

She remembers the pride she felt. The humility. The honor. American athletes chose her. She wasn’t at her best yet. That was coming. But she had done enough, meant enough, to be seen and chosen.

“If that’s my last Olympic memory, that’s totally fine,” Winger said, her voice breaking, her smile painted with tears as she recalled that moment in Tokyo. “It’s still the most meaningful thing in the world to me.”

Kara Winger

Kara Winger, Maggie Malone Hardin and bronze medalist Madison Wiltrout pose with their medals during the U.S. Olympic track and field trials. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

(Top photo of Kara Winger celebrating her silver medal at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials: George Walker IV/AP)