American track and field athlete Kara Winger reflects on the importance of coaches throughout her career.
Kara Winger’s endearing anecdote about her collegiate coach Rodney Zuyderwyk is splendid in its simplicity. It’s 2008, on a bearable Indiana summer day at Purdue University, and Winger — one of the top contenders for an NCAA title in javelin — is in the midst of a short-and-sweet workout on an unnamed hill next to the baseball field.
“I remember feeling the juxtaposition,” Winger recalls. “You could see Slater Hill, the big hill we usually train on. But we were on the little hill because, at that point in the season, it’s more of a taper situation, and he was right there with me, laughing about other things in life.
“It showed the kind of calm confidence he had in me,” she adds. “He instilled values in me that would be useful later.”
Here’s the catch: Winger’s top NCAA finishes were 2nd and 5th, somewhat surprising given her many other athletic accomplishments. But, just weeks later, Winger rebounded and shined at U.S. Nationals.
Zuyderwyk was a key.
“He made the greatest impact on me in my athletic journey,” Winger says. “His mentorship came at exactly the right time in my athletic development. I've never met a more quiet, respectful motivator. He always had my future in mind, even if that meant I wasn't performing at the meets that were most important to his job as a collegiate coach. I'm so grateful that he saw the bigger picture.”
When he was recruiting Winger, Zuyderwyk was struck by how enthusiastic, genuine and positive she was.
“Her personality was infectious,” he says. “She was a joy to coach, having someone with a personality like that. In good times and hard times, she was positive.”
A native of Australia, Zuyderwyk was an all-around athlete and ended up at Washington State University, where he competed in hurdles and combined events and helped his team win a PAC-12 Championship. He says javelin was one of his favorite disciplines but, as a track and field coach, Zuyderwyk had to work with many athletes across multiple sports.
Winger took coaching well, and she dramatically improved each year. Entering Purdue, she threw 158 feet and hit at 172 feet by the end of her freshman year. She improved to 186 by the end of her sophomore year then, after a redshirt season, shined with a 202.
“She might have an incredible performance at the conference championship then get a little nervous at the NCAA,” Zuyderwyk recalls. “You have some big throws, when you’re that young, and everyone is looking at you as the next big thing, and you start to put pressure on yourself. She just needed time to work through that and get more consistent.”
One of his favorite stories about Winger was during her sophomore year. During a training session, one throw after another, she couldn’t properly release the javelin.
“It was a mistake you see in a middle-schooler throw,” he recalls. “It was kind of like the yips.”
Zuyderwyk pulled Winger aside and encouraged her to practice some fundamentals.
By the weekend, at an event, Winger responded by throwing a then personal best.
That week was a testament to Winger’s positivity, potential and perspective.
After Purdue, Zuyderwyk headed to New Mexico, where, in nine years, he coached 19 individuals to Mountain-West Conference titles, six outright conference team titles, 30 NCAA Championship appearances, three All-American honors, one Mountain-West Athlete of the Year and 10 All-Conference honors. Now, he’s at the University of Notre Dame.
Zuyderwyk says he is mindful that every athlete is at a different level and that he cares most about their personal development.
“If you reach your potential, at whatever level you’re striving for, that’s so important,” he says. “But it’s about who you are as a person, how you treat others. These athletes are so much more than a number. They have gifts, and talents and they can impact not only their peers but the world.”
Zuyderwyk is in Indiana, and Winger is in Colorado. Still, she feels fortunate to work closely with two other coaches she holds in high esteem. Jamie Myers, her strength coach, has worked with her for 10 years. Dana Lyon, her technical coach, is a two-time NCAA javelin champion and a current assistant at the Air Force Academy.
But Myers and Lyon are more than her coaches, Winger says.
Myers drove Winger to her wedding, and his wife was Winger’s matron of honor. She’s known Lyon for 15 years, and their frequent dinners together are filled with laughter.
But this is no joke: Winger is thriving.
She won a gold medal at the Pan-American Games, and she placed 5th at the World Championship. That’s the highest ever for the U.S. in women’s javelin, according to United States Track & Field. Kelsey-Lee Barber of Australia won with a throw of 218 feet, 11 feet further than Winger’s best throw.
At the Pan-Am Games, Winger topped the Olympic standard (209.974 feet), but she still has to secure her spot for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics at the U.S. Olympic Trials in June.
“I feel great,” Winger says. “That’s the thing, about working with Dana and Jamie. To be this successful, in only our second season working together… it’s so much fun to think about my future.”