For Kara Winger, four-time Olympian in javelin, there's peace in missing Paris

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

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

“I had so many years of not (being) good enough,” Winger said. “Not even not (being) good enough, but just falling apart at the exact wrong time.”

The Olympic trials are a scripted montage of triumphs. A celebration of eye-popping feats. A coronation of superstars. A collage of defiance in the face of adversity, a challenge that would crumble most.

Winger belongs among the celebrated. Her triumph was different, but worthy nonetheless.

She began the javelin at 18 years old. This was her fifth Olympic trials. She stepped away for a year to heal, physically and emotionally, and came back because she still had some fire left, even if mostly in the form of a burning question.

“Can I be 38, believe in myself, trust in my technique and execute to a pretty high level?”

Winger set it up so the U.S. trials would bear the answer. A final exam of her return. If she could, she’d go to her fifth Olympics, her final Games. And this time, her family and friends can take part. The sendoff of her dreams.

If she couldn’t, then she’d know she was done. She could retire with peace.

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

She recovered in time to compete in the Tokyo Olympics. She finished 17th, failing to make it to the finals. Her knee was healthy but mentally, emotionally, she wasn’t recovered enough to trust it. At that point, she was 18 years in, had endured multiple injuries and numerous heartbreaks. Her four trips to the Olympics ended the same way — her not making the final, heartbroken at the doorstep of her dream.

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

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

She won eight meets in 2022, made five other podiums and never finished lower than fourth that year. Her previous healthy year, 2019, she won four meets, made two other podiums and finished fifth or lower five times.

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

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

It was such a good year, she celebrated with jet skis in the Bahamas.

And then it was over. She’d 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” type of high note.

But a funny thing happened just 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 one day, when her throwing days were over, she’d wake up and her body would feel good.

Then, one day last spring, she was walking her dogs.

“I’m just powering up a hill,” she said, “and my knee feels great. My glute feels great. My back feels fine. And, in an instant, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh! Today is the day!’ I FaceTimed Mike immediately like, ‘I feel great!’ It was really funny.”

The seed of a comeback was planted immediately, though it didn’t sprout until later.

Did she leave the sport too early, right when she’d found her groove? Could she recapture the magic from 2022, even though she was older and had been away from the sport?

This time, her relationship with javelin felt different. Her body felt good. The success of 2022 sparked a newfound confidence. She spent a year ruminating on the perfect throw. She wanted to dive into the sport she loves from this perspective, healthy and mature. The challenge to thrive 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 so much more of a choice than it was all of the 20 years that I did it from high school on,” Winger said. “I left in 2022 as No. 1 in the world. And everybody was like, ‘Why would you want to mess that up?’ But I was not No. 1 for 19 years. So it felt very strange to be done and wondering if I left too early. Now, maybe I did. Maybe I could have done better in 2023. But I 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 just prove to myself that I understood it.”

Kara Winger

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

After sitting out all of 2023, Winger aimed to make the Paris Olympics. She intentionally didn’t compete in enough events to achieve a world ranking. It would all come down to her hitting the Olympic standard, 64.00 meters, on any one of her throws during the year and also earning a spot at U.S. trials.

If she could hit the standard at trials, it meant she was in better position to achieve the one thing she believes is missing on her resume.

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

Obviously, a thrower is never guaranteed to make the final. It’s all about performing on the day that matters. Maggie Malone Hardin, the gold medalist in women’s javelin at trials, has made a career out of performing her best in Olympic years. It’s been the opposite for Winger.

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

Was 2022 a fluke or her coming into her own? She had to know.

If she could hit a long mark on cue, when she had to have it, that was proof it was possible.

Without that, Winger would know she couldn’t. She’d be fine with that truth, because she knows. And if she can’t make the Olympic finals, she has nothing else 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 powered through their injuries, pushed by Winger’s inspiration.

So it was Paris or peace out.

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 meet. Then it was onto trials.

In three throws in the first round, her best mark was 63.01 meters, tops in the field. That gave her six more throws to make 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 point of all this was to determine whether or not she had what it takes to make the Olympic finals this time. If she threw like this in the Olympics, devastation would be hers again.

But Winger knew what she was doing wrong. She could diagnose it and fix it. Plus she was feeling fatigue. She is 38.

What that signaled was she needed more training.

“That just goes to show that you don’t get to waltz back in, not compete very much, and still do this very well. I think it’s really cool to prove you have to be on, on the day. Everybody. … I don’t get to take a shortcut, and I thought about that the entire process.”

Kara Winger

Kara Winger needed one throw at U.S. Olympic trials to reach the standard of 64 meters. She came up 1.06 meters short in her last attempt Sunday. (Patrick Smith / Getty Images)

But if she hit the Olympic standard in one of the last three throws, she’d have six weeks to hone her technique and conditioning.

Throw No. 4 — 60.82. Throw No. 5 — 58.08.

Winger was down to her last throw. The final hail mary of her career. She’s pulled some sixth-round magic before. Her first American record, in 2010, was on throw No. 6.

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

Throw No. 6 — 62.94.

So Winger, the four-time Olympian thrower and pillar of U.S. women’s javelin, is done.

“I didn’t prove to myself what I needed to prove to myself,” she said, “and I’m OK to finally, actually be retired. Riding off into the sunset feels different this time because I satisfied my curiosity. Either way, I needed to figure out, ‘Could I do this one more time or can’t I?’ I knew that I could’ve, but I didn’t. So I’m all set. I’m good.”

She won’t be going to Paris. Her career ends having never made an Olympic final. But in 2021, Winger was voted by her fellow Team USA athletes to be the flag bearer for the closing ceremonies. She was the fourth track and field 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 hadn’t been her best yet. That was coming. But she’d done enough, meant enough, to be seen and chosen.

“If that’s my last Olympic memory, that’s totally fine,” Winger said, her voice cracking, her smile painted with tears as she remembers that moment in Tokyo. “It’s still just 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 at 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)

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