Immortal | Tales of John Winkelman’s athletic prowess will live forever | TahoeDailyTribune.com
YOUR AD HERE »

Immortal | Tales of John Winkelman’s athletic prowess will live forever

Tim Parsons
tparsons@tahoedailytribune.com
Submitted to the TribuneJohn Winkelman was a state champion skier in high school and an individual national champion at Western State College in Gunnison, Colo.
ALL |

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – “I can see his face right now,” the former South Tahoe High School ski coach said.

Paul Werley was recalling the best slalom skier he’d ever trained.

“He’d fallen down and his goggles were plastered with snow. He shook out his gloves, shrugged his shoulders and smiled. He knew he was trying his best.”



John Winkelman’s competitiveness never trumped his amiability.

His brother remembered how John reacted when he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, ALS, a fatal condition in which the body weakens and atrophies until it can’t function anymore.



“He didn’t feel sorry for himself,” Erik Winkelman said. “He just shrugged his shoulders, like, ‘What else can you do?'”

Stories of John Winkelman’s athletic feats are legendary. No matter the sport, he excelled at it.

“The only thing I could beat him out in was golf, but then he took that up, too,” said Rus Wilson, a friend since he and Winkelman were in Little League. “‘Wink’ never worked out a day in his life, and he was just ripped. Pisses us all off.”

Twenty months after being diagnosed, Winkelman died March 20, at the age of 52, leaving behind his wife of 21 years, Claudia, three daughters, Lauren, Lindsay and Annie, and a legion of crestfallen friends.

Claudia Winkelman married John less than a year after the couple were set up on a blind date by respective family members.

“I was a skier,” she said. “I think that was a prerequisite. … John had a huge personality and he was very open and accepting to my friends and family. He just wanted to be a part of that – enthusiastically.”

Los Altos, Calif., residents, they visited John’s old hometown shortly after becoming engaged.

“He really loved growing up in Tahoe,” she said. “He loved being outside and in nature. … He said, ‘Let’s take a day hike.’ It was to the top of Tallac. He called that a day hike.”

Descending mountains was Winkelman’s passion.

Erik Winkelman recalled when John was 6 years old, he stuffed a pair of tennis shoes in his older brother’s ski boots and joined a children’s group lesson at what was then called Heavenly Ski Resort.

“Let’s go down, everybody,” the instructor told the children, who took the chairlift down the mountain at the end of the lesson. At the bottom, John was missing, and the ski patrol was alerted of a lost toddler, who had simply misunderstood his command. The youngster descended Gunbarrel, an expert double-diamond run.

“He was doing perfect snowplow turns between the moguls – you could barely see the top of his head,” Erik Winkelman said. “He probably passed a few people on the way down.”

Wilson and John Winkelman played on the Red Sox in the South Tahoe Little League.

“He played catcher and home run hitter,” Wilson said. “I think he hit 15 or 16 one season.”

Winkelman was a quarterback for STHS when Athletic Director Don Borges was a new teacher at the school.

“He scored the winning touchdown with three seconds to go against North Tahoe,” Borges said. “But his strongest sport was skiing.”

Indeed, Winkelman won two individual state titles and led the Vikings to three California ski championships. He won the two individual national titles in college.

“As captain of the ski team, he not only showed us leadership, he showed us how to be better skiers,” said his classmate Kirk Ledbetter. “We’d watch how he started and took the gates and his line. Nobody would be able to take the same line, but the closer we came to it, the faster we were.”

Winkelman competed as a boy in NASTAR races, competitions with a handicap system, set by the course pro.

“John would beat the pro and they didn’t know how to score it,” Erik Winkelman said. “They said there was a problem with clock. They couldn’t calculate it, and they made him do it again. You’re not supposed to beat the pro.”

“He made us all better trying to keep up with him,” Wilson said.

“He was so balanced it was almost natural to him,” coach Werley said. “And he was even-tempered. He was competitive but not the type who would scream or yell if he fell. It’s a go-for-it sport and you don’t finish all the time.”

Winkelman took up ice hockey at the age of 36 and later became a referee. But he always made time for ski trips and visited most of the resorts in North America.

During a ski vacation in Aspen, he told his brother-in-law about competing in the Olympics.

“He didn’t brag about it; I just pulled it out of him,” Jim LaRoy said. “Two of the top three skiers on the US team were injured just before the Olympics at Lake Placid. Andy Mill was the top skier. He asked the coach, ‘If I beat your other guys, will you let me compete?’ And he said ‘Yeah, but you won’t beat them.’ “

Winkelman beat them and made the team as an alternate.

Claudia Winkelman said her husband rarely spoke about the Olympics but was reminded by U.S. Ski Team gear which was occasionally mailed to the house.

The Winkelman home in the South Bay is adorned with a poster signed by neighbors.

“He was the ambassador of the street,” Claudia Winkelman said.

When it was the Winkelmans turn to baby-sit on Wednesday “date nights,” John would order pizza delivery.

“He created the pizza dance,” Claudia said. “The kids would have to dance all around house, and he’d have them really dance enthusiastically. Then up would drive the pizza truck.”

About six months after Winkelman was diagnosed with ALS, a group of STHS graduates held a reunion which was attended by more than 50 of his former classmates.

“John was one of those guys who was total package,” Werley said. “He cared about his friends and he had a lot of them.”

“Even though he was such a great athlete, he never acted above anybody,” said Tiffany Hetherton Grimes. “And he wanted to make everybody better. He was beautiful inside and out. He was just a wonderful person that way.”

“I’ve known the man 43 years,” Wilson said. “I can’t say this about anyone else, co-workers, family or associates: Wink and I never had a cross word between us. That’s a real testament.”

“He was a really radiant person and even during his illness he still had that glow,” Ledbetter said, “but it was very difficult to see him with such a debilitating disease.”

The STHS group continued to meet about every six weeks, Claudia Winkelman said.

“That was another gift that John has left behind, a group of friends who are always going to be together for each other just like they were there for us. …

“John wasn’t afraid to die but just sad to leave us.”

was occasionally mailed to the house.

The Winkelman home in the South Bay is adorned with a poster signed by neighbors.

“He was the ambassador of the street,” Claudia Winkelman said.

When it was the Winkelmans’ turn to baby-sit on Wednesday “date nights,” John would order pizza delivery.

“He created the pizza dance,” Claudia said. “The kids would have to dance all around house, and he’d have them really dance enthusiastically. Then up would drive the pizza truck.”

About six months after Winkelman was diagnosed with ALS, a group of STHS graduates held a reunion which was attended by more than 50 of his former classmates.

“John was one of those guys who was the total package,” Werley said. “He cared about his friends and he had a lot of them.”

“Even though he was such a great athlete, he never acted above anybody,” said Tiffany Hetherton Grimes. “And he wanted to make everybody better. He was beautiful inside and out. He was just a wonderful person that way.”

“I’ve known the man 43 years,” Wilson said. “I can’t say this about anyone else, co-workers, family or associates: Wink and I never had a cross word between us. That’s a real testament.”

“He was a really radiant person and even during his illness he still had that glow,” Ledbetter said, “but it was very difficult to see him with such a debilitating disease.”

The STHS group continued to meet about every six weeks, Claudia Winkelman said.

“That was another gift that John has left behind, a group of friends who are always going to be together for each other just like they were there for us. …

“John wasn’t afraid to die but just sad to leave us.”


Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around the Lake Tahoe Basin and beyond make the Tahoe Tribune's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.

For tax deductible donations, click here.

Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.

User Legend: iconModerator iconTrusted User