Athletes and advocacy: an Olympian makes a point of public lands
Like so many of us, Kara Winger likes to take to the trails to clear her mind and blow off stress from the workday. Less typical: Winger’s workday often involves hurling seven-foot-long metal spears through the air!
Winger is a three-time Olympian who holds the U.S. record in the javelin throw. But despite training and competing all around the world, her favorite places are still the American parks and trails that help her stay grounded. Now, she’s joining other Olympic athletes calling on policymakers to keep public lands in public hands.
How did you first get into javelin?
I always played sports growing up. Softball was my first love, but I also did basketball, swimming, soccer, and volleyball. I competed in a bunch of different track and field events in high school, so it wasn’t until I went to Purdue University on a track and field scholarship that I started to really focus on the javelin.
Sounds like you had a busy childhood. Did you ever have unstructured time—to play and just be a kid?
Oh, definitely. I grew up Vancouver, Washington, so we had the whole Pacific Northwest to explore. My family went camping all the time, checking out state parks along the Oregon coast or national forests in the Cascades. My whole family was always busy, so I think these trips were important time-outs for us. As a kid playing in the woods, I didn’t care where we were or what the weather was doing: I was just happy that we were together and outside.
How does public land play a role in your everyday life?
My husband Russ and I live in Colorado Springs in part because it’s the home of the U.S. Olympic Training Center, but also because we love being so close to the Rockies. We try to get out to national parks and forests every chance we get—whether for short trail-runs or longer backpacking trips.
It wasn’t until I met Russ that I started doing multi-day trips in the backcountry. When Russ—and Russ’s backpacking habit—first entered my life, I thought that taking days off of our rigid training schedules to go play in the mountains would be a distraction. (He’s also a professional thrower.) But every time I’d go out in the wilderness, it would make coming back to the gym so much easier. Also, backpacking doubles as cross-training—and nothing builds mental toughness like hauling yourself and your gear straight up a mountain.
What’s your favorite memory of a trip you’ve taken on public land?
Russ proposed to me at Olympic National Park in 2013. Of course, being in Western Washington, it was pretty cold and wet. I remember we were on a ridge between two big rivers, looking out over these massive, glacier-carved valleys, and the clouds were swirling through the trees in that very beautiful, Pacific Northwest kind of way. He proposed, I said yes, and we were so excited that we hiked 14 miles straight out of the woods (a single-day backpacking personal record for us!) so we could get home and celebrate with our families.
Do you think having access to public land has made you a better athlete?
Yes. Public lands made me a better athlete because they’ve made me a better person. I used to be solely focused on the javelin, and while that served me pretty well in terms of athletic success in college, I wasn’t fulfilled—I wasn’t as happy as I could have been. Now that Russ and I are in the habit of exploring and learning about the places we live and visit to compete, I feel more anchored and more well-rounded. Especially being in a sport like javelin, which is so repetitive, the connection with nature through public land has made such a difference for me.
How did you celebrate after the Rio games?
Russ and I took a road trip! We did a loop around the Rockies—we went to Glacier, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton national parks. I saw my first grizzly bear in Glacier. We had our dog with us, so we also checked out some Forest Service trails where she could come hiking, too. On the drive home, we were reading an article about the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and all the threats it’s facing. It’s this incredibly intact landscape, but global warming, wildlife management conflicts, and stress from too many people visiting could have some really lasting negative impacts. The road trip, and learning about the places we went, renewed my conviction to speak up in support of public lands. Access to public land has always been such a big part of my life—I can’t imagine that being taken away.