Johnny Werket, Olympic coach and skater

  • Article by: JIM ADAMS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 3, 2010 - 5:41 PM

He was a top speed skater and coached gold medal winners in the 1972 Winter Games.

Johnny Werket weighed only 130 pounds, but on ice, he was powerful and fast.

From 1948 to 1950, Werket was a top 1,500-meter speed skater in world skating championships, sponsored annually by the International Skating Union. Werket, who grew up skating in Minneapolis during the Great Depression, also competed in the 1948, 1952 and 1956 Winter Olympics and coached two gold medal-winning skaters at the 1972 Olympics in Sapporo, Japan.

Werket, 85, died of stroke and cancer complications June 4 in Sun City West, Ariz., where he and his wife retired.

In addition to his athletic feats, he was an Army paratrooper during World War II and worked 32 years as a salesman and personnel trainer for Northern States Power Co.

One of the gold medal skaters Werket coached was Diane Holum, who was 15 when he first groomed her for the world championships in 1967.

"He taught me so much that year. I was third in the world championships. That was like a breakthrough year for me," said Holum from her home in Broomfield, Colo. Five years later she was on the speed-skating team Werket coached for the Sapporo Winter Games.

"He was a middle-distance specialist," Holum said, noting that the 1,500-meter was her favorite race. "He taught me how to skate that race. ... To increase your effort on the turns and relax on the straightaways, because your speed comes from the turns and it shoots you into the straightaway."

Hollum struck gold in the 1,500 meters at Sapporo. "After I crossed the line and made the turn, I went straight to him and gave him a big hug," she recalled. She also garnered a silver in the 3,000-meter, and teammate Anne Henning, also coached by Werket, won gold and bronze in shorter races, according to a 1972 newspaper account.

Hollum said she used Werket's training tips throughout her skating and coaching career, which included coaching three Olympics speed-skating teams, the last in 1998. She passed his tips on to Eric Heiden, who she coached before he became the first Olympian to win five individual golds in a single Olympics in 1980 at Lake Placid, N.Y.

Werket's style was very encouraging and gentle, Hollum said.

"He was very supportive, not critical, but gave you positive things you could do," she said. "If a skater was having trouble, he would tell them all the good things they were doing and then say, 'You could work on this.'''

She said Werket "had a huge influence on my attitude, and that is as important, or more so, than skating itself."

Werket's younger son, Jim, of Hastings, said, "In our family, you skated before you walked."

His father coached him when he skated competitively into his 20s. "He was a technique coach," Jim Werket said. "He could evaluate an athlete's power and then maximize his style. That's what made him such a good coach."

In addition to his son, Werket is survived by his wife of 58 years, Vesla, of Sun City West, Ariz.; another son, John, of Richfield, and four grandchildren.

A memorial service and reception will be held July 8 at 3 p.m. Thursday at Diamond Lake Lutheran Church, 5760 Portland Av. S., Minneapolis.

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