A Final Look Back At The 2019 season: Kara Winger Finds Her Chill

In a tank of saltwater. In Iowa. True story.

It all started in October of 2018 when she stabbed herself in the hand while carving a Halloween pumpkin for the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. It was her right hand, of course, her javelin hand, and she suffered nerve damage that had her “extremely worried” that her career might be over.

Which would have been a shame, since she’d thrown great at the Diamond League final in Zurich a few weeks earlier (64.75m to take third), and loved working with her current coaches, Dana Pounds Lyon and Jamie Myers. 

So she had no interest in retiring, and immediately vowed “not to let this weird, accidental self-sabotage get in the way of what I had started to build with Jamie and Dana.” Luckily, the pain from the injury subsided after a few weeks, though it occasionally resurfaced at odd times (while closing the trunk of her car, for example) to remind her of how close she’d come to having her long and remarkably productive career (Kara has won eight national titles) come to a premature and embarrassing end. 

One upshot of the injury was that it caused Kara to change the way she held the javelin. She  dropped the “European grip” that she’d used her entire career, and adopted the “American” grip. “I worried about hand strength,” she explained. “With the European grip, you basically use three fingers. In the American grip you have all four fingers in contact with the chord, so I figured that if I had lost any strength this could help me compensate.”

It turned out that she was good at compensating. In May, Kara traveled to Chula Vista for a three-week training camp to try out the new grip. It worked just fine and, in spite of a “small, weird” calf strain that she sustained in practice, her first European trip of the 2019 season began in promising fashion with wins in Norway and Germany. She then took fourth at the Diamond League meeting in Rome with a toss of 63.11m. But the trip concluded on a sour note when she could manage a best of only 56.25m in Jena. 

Kara had about three weeks at home after that, part of which she was able to spend with her husband, Russ, himself a former world class thrower who was in Wyoming for the summer guiding fishing trips. But she missed him badly when she returned to Colorado to train, and Dana, who coaches at the Air Force Academy, was busy with her collegiate throwers, so Kara was often left to practice alone and she found herself brooding over that performance in Jena. 

Her confidence took another shot when her second European trip began as badly as the first  had ended–a toss of 56.99m for ninth place (and no Diamond League points) in Lausanne. 

She then rallied to break sixty meters in three consecutive meets, including a 62.89m toss in Luzern, but fell ill after that, struggled to maintain any rhythm in training, and ended up finishing ninth in the London Diamond League meeting on July 20th. That wrecked her chances of qualifying for the Diamond League Final. 

Which was awfully disappointing after her third-place DL finish in 2018.

Kara had faced adversity before, including having to work her way back from a torn ACL suffered during the 2012 Olympic Trials. She threw in the London Olympics on that bad knee, had it surgically repaired, then fought her way back to the elite level of the sport, tossing a near PB of 66.47m in 2015.

So, she’s no wimp.

But there was something about the summer of 2019 that got her down. Maybe the shock of the Halloween injury had taken an emotional toll. Maybe all the travel was getting harder and lonelier after a decade of summers spent on the road. Maybe, with her career nearing its end, she was putting too much pressure on herself not to waste opportunities. Her determination to “carpe” all her remaining “diems” as a javelin thrower may have made it more difficult to shake off the occasional sucky diem–something that professional athletes have to be able to do.

Whatever the cause, she left Europe feeling low and desperate to–in her words–“freaking relax.” 

Luckily, her next stop was Des Moines, Iowa, site of the 2019 US Championships. Des Moines has had an endorphin-inducing effect on Kara ever since she set the American record of 66.67m there in 2010. Also, Dana would be there to train with her and Russ would be there for moral support. And, it turns out that they have sensory deprivation tanks in Des Moines to help tense Iowans relax.

Sensory deprivation tanks (also known as “isolation tanks” or “flotation tanks”) come in a variety of sizes and shapes, but are basically containers of salt water large enough for a person to climb into, stretch out, and float. Some have lids that shut out all light. They were featured in a 1980 film called Altered States in which William Hurt starred as a scientist who used a deprivation tank not to relax but to devolve into a more primitive state. At one point, his colleagues open the tank and he pops out as a small caveman. 

Kara’s experience was markedly different. A friend recommended that she try floating as a way to relieve stress, so she made an appointment as soon as she arrived in Des Moines. Her first ninety-minute session helped relieve some of the chronic neck pain and tightness that are the inevitable result of throwing a javelin for a living and, more importantly, allowed her to clear her head for the first time in months. 

She had lunch with Dana and Jamie the next day, and the three conspired to salvage Kara’s season.

One thing they agreed on was that Kara should return to her old grip. Though the American grip allowed her to “control the angle of the javelin better,” she never quite got comfortable with it, and she and Dana decided that using her old grip might give her a better chance to “rediscover how to move through the finish.”

With only a couple of days before the women’s jav competition in Des Moines, they agreed that Kara would use the American grip one last time. With it, Kara threw 59.73m and finished second to her good friend Ariana Ince.

After that, it was off to Lima, Peru for the Pan American Games. Upon arriving in Lima, Kara had time to practice her old grip only once before blasting a season’s best 64.92m for the win. 

She then returned home for a month of quality training and floating before traveling to Minsk for the US v. Europe match, which she won with a sixth-round toss of 64.63m.

Next came the World Championships. Previously, Kara’s best finish at a Worlds was eighth place in 2015. But, newly confident, newly relaxed, newly comfortable with her old grip she snagged fifth in Doha with a toss of 63.23m. No American woman had ever finished higher in the jav at Worlds. 

Looking back, Kara views her week in Des Moines as the turning point to her season. 

“I had a fantastic time at USA’s,” she recalled recently. “I got to hang out with my family and many of my closest friends. Ari and I hosted our first (hopefully annual) thrower party. And to have been surrounded by people I adore for an entire weekend after being disappointed in Europe for weeks was exactly what I needed.”

“I truly entered the second half of the season just wanting to have a great time with my friends at the three team meets I had left, and see what would happen if I went back to my old grip and just relaxed. I was just very done being worried and too serious all the time. I just wanted to bust out of whatever rut I was in this year, in a healthy and communicative way.”

After some time off to recover from a long and challenging season, Kara began throwing again a couple of weeks ago. She survived Halloween unscathed, and says that she is excited to be back in training. She floats regularly, and has been pleased to discover that “the warmth of the sensory deprivation tank is really nice during a Colorado winter.”

Doing her best to “remember the technical and mental things that made the end of 2019 so fun,” Kara is looking forward to taking her talents to Tokyo.

Which gives me an idea for a movie. It’s just like Altered States, except that when the scientists open the hatch on the tank, out pops a women’s javelin thrower with an Olympic medal around her neck. I know just the person to play that part. 

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