After representing the United States across four Olympics, women's javelin thrower Kara Winger had one last special moment at the closing ceremony in Tokyo on Sunday.
Winger, 35, was selected as the flag bearer for the U.S. contingent at the closing ceremony to wrap up this year's Games, and she carried the Stars and Stripes with pride around the Olympic Stadium.
Ahead of her big moment, she shared some behind the scenes photos and video to her Instagram account, including selfies with fellow athletes and another with NBC's crew. She also shared a close-up of the flag as she waited for her turn to enter the stadium.
"There’s no better way to conclude my career as an Olympic athlete than to lead the U.S. team into the Closing Ceremony," Winger said in a statement after she was announced as flag bearer.
The Washington state native finished 17th in Tokyo after throwing 59.71 meters (196 feet) in the preliminaries last week — coming up short of reaching the finals, which are made up of the top 12 throwers from the qualifying round.
Winger finished 41st at her first Olympics in Beijing in 2008, followed by 31st in London in 2012 and then 13th in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.
The former Purdue University star overcame adversity just to qualify for Tokyo, as she tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her left knee for the second time in her career at a meet in Idaho last year. The Olympics being postponed for a year due to the pandemic was a blessing in disguise that allowed her to rehabilitate from the injury in time to punch her ticket to Tokyo.
Winger appeared Friday on TODAY in Tokyo to talk about the big honor of being chosen as Team USA's flag bearer.
"I am in complete disbelief still. It’s insane, insane!" she said. "Four-time Olympian, but never a finalist even, and not a medalist so it just feels incredibly — it’s such an honor to be this person that maybe represents that the point of the Olympics is about participation.
"I kept showing up. Simone Biles showed up in the beam at the end of the Olympics, and it’s just been such a cool conversation about mental health and this example that Japan has set of putting the Olympics on, bringing the world back together again and just being here."
Winger also reflected on the bittersweet end to her Olympic career this week after her 17th-place finish.
"It was a fairy tale until the ending," she wrote on Instagram. "59.71m for 17th overall in Qualifying at my fourth Olympics. My second-best Olympic result, and as unbearably sad as I am to not make the final (this feeling is always AWFUL and the same), I’m more proud. And I’m REALLY sad."
She also thanked her coaches and physical therapist for all their help during her time in Tokyo, where she was selected by her teammates as one of the two captains for Team USA Track and Field.
"This team has already ensured that this is still my favorite Olympics, despite outcome," she wrote. "There’s an odd peace around knowing I’ll never be an Olympic finalist. I don’t have unfinished business here anymore. If I am just meant to support the amazing teammates around me, I accept that."
She also showed her gratitude for the support of her fans along the way.
"Thank you all for your incredible cheers all year long," she wrote. "I don’t plan to stop my season yet! Body’s feeling good, which is part of the heartbreak. But again, super proud of this body."
Winger held the American record for the javelin throw with 218 feet, 8 inches before Maggie Malone, 27, threw a pending American record of 219 feet, 3 inches at a USA Track and Field event earlier this year. Malone threw 63.07 meters (207 feet) in Tokyo this week to reach Friday's javelin finals.
In holding the flag for the U.S. delegation at Sunday's closing ceremony, Winger follows basketball star Sue Bird and baseball standout Eddy Alvarez, who were the flag bearers for Team USA at the opening ceremony in Tokyo.
Gymnastics superstar Simone Biles was the U.S. flag bearer for the closing ceremony in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.