‘I can’t stop crying tears of gratitude,’ HHS alumna and U.S. flagbearer Kara Winger shares Olympic memories

By Tim Brouk, tbrouk@purdue.edu

Kara Winger poses with arms folded

Nutrition Science alumna Kara Winger competed in her fourth Olympics this summer and she was voted as the United States flagbearer by her fellow Team USA athletes.karawinger.com

During what was her fourth and most likely final Summer Olympics, Kara Winger (NUTR ‘09) received one of her greatest honors in 20 years of national and world track and field competition.

As the Tokyo Games entered its final days, Winger was voted by her fellow Team USA athletes to represent her country as the flagbearer during the Olympics’ closing ceremony. Winger held Old Glory high amid the pomp and pageantry in a mostly empty Olympic Stadium. She was among the first flagbearers, who were later followed by scores of athletes from the 206 competing countries. Winger spoke with NBC commentators live while she soaked up the finality and the success of her nation throughout the games.

“To be seen by those amazing teammates in this way is the most humbling and overwhelming thing I’ve ever experienced,” Winger texted from Tokyo. “I can’t stop crying tears of gratitude.”

Winger, who held the American record for javelin for 10 years, threw for Olympic U.S. track and field teams in 2008, 2012, 2016 and this summer. She was among the numerous athletes who benefited from the Olympics’ yearlong delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Winger had her second ACL surgery in August 2020 but recovered just in time to qualify for Tokyo. On Aug. 3, Winger finished eighth out of 15 athletes in her pool. She did not qualify for the finals, but her experiences this summer will last a lifetime.

What did the honor of being the U.S. flagbearer in the closing ceremony mean to you?

Being flag bearer is still something I can’t quite wrap my head around. I’ve had more disappointment than victory on the world’s biggest stages, so I’ve always turned my sadness into support for my incredible teammates. There is so much success and especially so many incredible women on Team USA that I just feel lucky to have overlapped careers with so many legends.

To represent the Olympic spirit that values participation over winning is such a privilege, and I hope that anyone with Olympic and Paralympic aspirations sees that there’s so much value in just trying and being a good teammate. Never in my wildest dreams did I think my heart could be this full. I don’t expect to ever top this feeling, and I’m completely OK with that. So grateful.

How did COVID-19 affect your Olympic experience this summer?

We are all really good at spitting in tubes now! We take daily COVID tests. At home, as a resident at the Colorado Springs Olympic and Paralympic Training Center, I take daily symptom surveys, and we do that here, too, so that part is fairly normal. Overall, it’s just amazing to me that the logistics officers, country of Japan and everyone who helped organize this Olympics did it. It’s an incredible feat.

What was Tokyo like overall this summer?

I love Tokyo! It’s definitely different to not be able to go anywhere, but that just means the entire focus is the Olympics and my teammates. That’s restful and really fulfilling in a lot of ways. The Japanese volunteers in the Village and every venue are incredible, and the staff that keeps Team USA going is filled with people I’ve been lucky to know and grow close to for years and years. I’ve been really grateful for the gift of just focusing on life in our few specific physical locations here.

Since you were coming off an injury, what did it mean for you to be a part of these Olympics?

This incredible recovery process from my second ACL surgery last August has me feeling more grateful and present than ever. The very real possibility that I wouldn’t make it back and the fact that I did just means I am overwhelmingly happy to be here, and that’s a perfect mindset. I’ve never been so at peace heading into an Olympic Games.

What is next for you here in the U.S.?

I’ll go home for a few days. Then, I hope to turn around and compete in Europe for a few meets. I only plan to throw for one more season, so I want to make the most of this one. I have my eye on three more competitions and finishing my season in Poland at the beginning of September. I truly love the summer expatriate lifestyle of throwing the javelin and will miss it a lot when I retire finally, so I want to soak it up a bit more. But I am excited to be home for a couple days.