Minnetonka resident and former Olympic figure skater Janet Gerhauser Carpenter hung up her figure skates about three years ago, but this 86-year-old still talks about the sport with a fierce love in her voice—recounting her years as an Olympic competitor, coach, judge and team leader.
She began skating at age 5 at Lynnhurst Park in southwest Minneapolis. “My dad would take my sister and me to the park to skate—just for fun—but then one thing led to another,” Carpenter says. She joined the St. Paul Figure Skating Club for group lessons and eventually began taking private lessons. In middle school, she started dreaming of skating in the Olympics. “When I was in middle school, I became more aware of the Olympics,” she says. “At that time I was competing nationally, skating pairs.” When Carpenter was 19 and a sophomore at the University of Minnesota, she and her skating partner John Nightingale were selected for the Olympic team. “John was two years older than me and also at the [University of Minnesota],” she says. “He transferred over from St. Thomas [University] so we could better coordinate practice times.” The pair began training on the ice at what was then Williams Arena at the University of Minnesota until they packed up and flew to Oslo to compete in the 1952 Olympics.
“It was a long time ago,” Carpenter says, laughing, “but it was a great thrill.” Carpenter and her team of 10 others arrived early to get a feel for the rink. “All the skating was outdoors,” she says. “It was a different environment for everyone.” Carpenter remembers feeling elated during the Olympic ceremony and describes it as an experience like no other. “The Olympics is so many different sports and so many different countries participating,” she says. “It’s a whole different experience.” Carpenter and her partner placed sixth in the games. “One thing people always ask is, ‘What medal did you win?’” she says. “I was just thrilled to be there. We felt we did our best and we were really very pleased.”
After the Olympics, Carpenter finished college and then coached skating for six years before starting a family. After spending some time at home to raise her children, she went on to be a judge at two Olympic games—the first in Calgary in 1988 and the second in Salt Lake City in 2002. She was also team leader for the American men’s team in 1984 when American skater Scott Hamilton won the gold medal. “Being a team leader, you’re almost like a coach and a parent and a manager rolled into one,” she says, describing her year as a team leader as one of the most memorable and a highlight in her years with the Olympics.
2002 was Carpenter’s last year with the Olympics because 70 is the age limit for judging international competitions, but at age 86, she still judges locally. And although she no longer laces up a pair of skates herself, she is happy to look on from the audience these days and watch her three grandchildren who have inherited her love for the sport of skating.