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Rare Air: Katy Winge steps up with the Denver Nuggets

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The Denver Nuggets analyst joins a rather exclusive club in her new role with the team. Today, part one of two of a conversation with Katy Winge.

Altitude sports analyst Katy Winge brings a wealth of experience to her new role
Altitude sports analyst Katy Winge brings a wealth of experience to her new role

As the Denver Nuggets opened the 2018-2019 season, they announced the addition of a new radio and televison analyst to the Altitude crew. What made that news historic was that the hire was the uber-talented Katy Winge (@katywinge), who had already endeared herself to Nuggets Nation the previous season as an in-arena host, segment producer, and interviewer. Winge’s obvious skills catapulted her into a game-day position as the first female analyst in Denver Nuggets history. Denver Stiffs was fortunate to get to know Winge a little better, just as an exciting Nuggets season gets underway. Today, part one of two. Part two can be found here.

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Mike Olson, Denver Stiffs: Well, hello! It’s been a pretty whirlwind couple of months for you. How are you keeping up with all of the changes?

Katy Winge: It really has been, and in the best way possible. It still feels like a dream. I never imagined that I would be here so quickly. This type of role with the Nuggets is what I had identified as my dream job coming out of school. Being here at this point has given me a great opportunity to look back and reflect on my journey over the last few years. The past couple months and how it all came about is humbling to say the least. I’m just filled with so much gratitude, and so lucky to be here working with the Nuggets and for the Nuggets, with a group of incredibly talented and wonderful human beings. That is true with Altitude, with the Nuggets, and with Game Presentation where I was before. Everyone I have encountered has been such a joy to work with. It has literally been a dream come true.

Olson: Amazing. Congratulations to you on all of this. You’re in some rare air here, as you know. You’re the first female analyst for Altitude, and there are very few female analysts or play-by-play callers for any team in any sport. Big big stuff. What does it mean to you to be treading uncharted ground?

Winge: Just hearing you say that still gives me the chills a little bit. It’s very surreal, an unbelievable feeling. When I had my first broadcast a couple days ago, Altitude and the Nuggets TV crew surprised me during the pre-game show with a video of Jenny Cavnar and Doris Burke congratulating me and saying how wonderful this opportunity is, how excited they are to see me succeed, and to support me along the way. I got emotional, and it was a moment I had to really stop and hold myself together as I remembered I was still on TV, and still had a job to do.

To even be included in a conversation with women like those two is difficult to put into words. Jenny breaking ground and being in the position she’s in, doing play-by-play in baseball, and Doris just being… DORIS. Breaking ground the way she has, being the ultimate pioneer in the NBA for women who want to cover that sport, which is exactly what I want to do. So to have those two reach out to me… it’s hard to put into words. It still gives me chills. I’m tearing up a little right now just talking to you about it. There have been so many women who have come before me, that have played a huge role in why I even have an opportunity like this, and why I’m being recognized in the way that I am.

So, it’s great to recognized in this way, but I didn’t do all of this work. I worked hard to get here, but it’s women like Doris, like Jenny, and all the other females in sports, and in the NBA in particular, who allowed me to get here. Like Sarah Kustok, the Brooklyn Nets lead TV analyst, who was the first full-time female working for them. There are so many more. So many influential role models that have made this journey of mine possible, that it would be remiss for me not to mention them, and to say this is as much their accomplishment as it is mine.

Olson: A very worthy acknowledgement of the importance of those who came before you, and I agree, really important to recognize. I also want to tack back a little to your work ethic and tenacity for overcoming hurdles. As a player, you were a McDonald’s All-American, and a Minnesota Miss Basketball nominee. Then you had that nasty ACL tear to wrap up your junior year. Was that your first big setback? What did that teach you?

Winge: That was definitely the first big hurdle. My junior year, I was starting to do well enough I was getting interest from big schools with big names, and I was very young. Having those big schools come and talk to me… it was a big draw. They were so flashy, and I started to get caught up in it, thinking I wanted to play for the best possible school I could, and I had my sights set on Division I. Then I tore my ACL in the last home game of my junior year, which was horrible timing. The busiest period for college recruiting is during the summer going into your senior year, and I missed all of it. That was the first time in my life that I really doubted if I was going to achieve my dream of playing Division I college basketball.

My injury was such a fluke accident. I was defending, and the girl I was guarding stepped on my foot just as I was trying to slide. A perfect storm tore it, and no one on the recruiting side took the time to learn that was what had happened. So their attitude was, “this is another ACL injury, and it’s probably due to a structural issue, and it might happen again.” It’s understandable. In many cases, people, especially women, can be built in ways to be prone to ACL tears. If someone is prone, they can have it reoccur due to the way they are built. College coaches are naturally really afraid of that, and a most of them decided they didn’t want to take that risk.

I’d had one assistant coach who had offered me at a different school, who ended up leaving for a job at Illinois State, told her new head coach about me, and vouched for me heavily. When I’d recovered from my injury, that coach came out to my hometown of Minnetonka, Minnesota, and watched my open gym. That was all it took for her. She said, “I love the way you lead, I love the way you play, I love the personality that you have.” and just kept going on. They offered me right then and there, and took a big gamble on me. It wasn’t such a big gamble from my perspective, but they didn’t know me, and took that chance. I will be forever grateful to her and the school for that.

That coach reached out to me yesterday and expressed her pride in me, saying she had no doubt, and that she knew I was going places. In many ways I owe her everything, being able to play at the Division I level, and being challenged and pushed to my limits to achieve my dream. I grew up so much through that experience and through the game. That injury was a hurdle, but also propelled me forward.

Olson: You went on to an impressive career at Illinois State, including an NIT berth. Your stats were strong across several categories in different years. What would you say were your greatest strengths in the game?

Winge: It’s really interesting that you ask that, because I think it really varied, depending on what year I was in. In my freshman and sophomore seasons, my role with the team was to come in and be a lights-out three-point shooter. We had a couple of players who were amazing playmakers, and could take opponents one-on-one and beat them to the basket. So, basically, my job was to defend really hard and then knock down open threes when those other girls would drive and draw the defense in.

Going into my junior year, we had a coaching change. When the change happened, we had a bunch of girls who departed out of the class I came in with, and even the class behind me. I ended up being the only one who stayed. At that point, with so much change, I realized that we would struggle to win many games, and I decided it was incumbent on me as a leader to take over more than I had in my first two seasons. So, I became the playmaker and go-to. I still concentrated on making everybody else better, but also knew in crunch time that I needed to be the one to score or make plays happen. Through that experience my confidence grew and my game developed by playing against faster, stronger players.

It was a huge adjustment. The biggest factor was understanding I always needed to be the smartest player on the floor. I think that’s what has best translated to my role now. My basketball I.Q. was always high, but learning how to better read a defense, how to execute, and how to out-strategize opponents has translated well into what I am doing now.

Winge runs the Illinois State redbirds during her senior season
Winge runs the Illinois State redbirds during her senior season

Olson: Interesting. A couple of your biggest trials end up deeply impacting the way you see the game, and now that helps you translate it meaningfully to folks a little less in the know, like me.

Winge: Completely right. Absolutely. I had to play one through five in college, so I understand the challenges, the positioning, and the ways to be successful as a winning team. I’ve been very fortunate to experience a lot of different ways to play basketball, and that helps with this role, unquestionably.

Olson: In every interview I’ve been able to find with you, you almost invariably tie in something quick about your family. I know that you and your dad played basketball a lot when you were growing up, but tell me a little more about how your family influenced your path.

Winge: They are everything. Everything I am is because of them. My mom is smart and driven and a trailblazer. Me taking these steps in my career reminds me of steps she took in hers with her company, being one of the first women in her field to break through some of the things that she did. She was in marketing with a startup she founded with several male counterparts, for a non-profit fundraising company. She’s amazing. I get a lot of my sass and strength from her.

My dad is my favorite human being in the world. Our relationship grew so much through the game. He was my lifelong rebounder. We would talk after every single game. Sometimes, we’d be yelling at each other, and I’d be in tears. But he was also the one I wanted holding my hand at my senior day during my very last high school basketball game, and we were both crying out of happiness. He’s just a wonderful human, and I am inspired by him every single day.

My parents both really helped spark that fire, and they both influenced me in the game. That then impacted my path and influenced the way I look at the world and how I might be able to serve and connect and be a role model to others, if I can. My family gave me that confidence and support to become this, and their gift to me is simply unreal. The way all of that influenced me as a young girl is something I want to pass along to other young women, too. I want them to see me and realize they can play in college, or that they can become a broadcaster, or simply that they can pursue their dreams.

Olson: I think it’s already happening. I’ve seen several comments from parents with daughters very excited about your new role, saying that it’s inspiring their kids to possibly follow in your footsteps.

Winge: Those messages from parents are the ones that really stand out to me. It’s so nice to have people saying things like it’s well deserved or talking about my hard work to get here, but it’s those messages that say things like, “I’m the father of a daughter, and what you’re doing matters, and my child is inspired.” That’s really the only thing that makes all of this worthy of conversation to me, and those are the comments that really stick with me the most.

Olson: Another thing that really shines through in many of your past interviews is your love for your home state of Minnesota. Having recently gained a bit of familiarity with Minnesota, I will admit I found it shares many similarities with your new home state. Tell me about your time in Colorado, and what you think of your new home.

Winge: I think you’re spot on. I have found so many similarities, especially in the types of people who live here. Obviously, I’m biased, but I think “Minnesota nice” is a very real thing. I’ve been so pleasantly surprised that Colorado is filled with so many nice people, too. I had no idea how much I would love Colorado. The fact that this place, of all places, is where I ended up is mind-blowing to me. Coming out of grad school, I knew I wanted to work in the NBA, and so had to be willing to move wherever I had to move to make that dream a reality. It just so happened that the Nuggets were the team that I clicked with, and we were very much in synch about wanting to work together.

Somehow, that turned into me sitting on my couch right now as I talk to you looking at the mountains, and all I can feel is gratitude and happiness. I love the Colorado mountains, as anyone who follows me on social media can see. I love the perspective you get being out in nature. Denver has already spoiled me so much that it will be very hard for me to ever leave. Now, Minnesota is still my home, as my whole family is there. It will always be home to me. But the way this whole city has embraced me and what I want to do, and having a life here in the city and in the mountains, it’s amazing. The only thing I really miss is the lakes, and you only really get to experience that in Minnesota, and then only for a few months. Luckily for me, those few months are also the time I get a break from the NBA and get to spend some time back in Minnesota. Denver is everything I could ask for and so much more.

*** More to come! Many thanks to Katy Winge for her time and talents for this interview. Part two can be found here, with Katy’s thoughts on the upcoming Nuggets season, players, and more about the team.***