Today, on 9th January, at 1am, our Sensei Don Werner passed away peacefully in his sleep, after battling with cancer. It is an example of his character, that only 19 days ago he gave a 40 minute speech littered with his usual dry humour and meaningful words, at our annual Pinewood Awards Dinner. And it is a mark of what Don means to all of us, that 280 judoka and parents came from far and wide to be at the Dinner. At the end of the speech, there were tears in many eyes, as the standing ovation went on, and on, and on and we all knew we were soon to lose this great man. A man who has changed all our lives massively, making them bigger, brighter and better.
Donald Franklin Werner was born on 20th May 1932. He came to judo late, in his mid-twenties, when he took over the coaching at the Bracknell Judo Club in 1958, then housed in a small scout hut with a total membership of 20 people. Before that, Don had enjoyed a promising Cycle Speedway career at West Park, becoming a National Speedway Champion in 1948, and was an excellent competitive swimmer for the Beckenham Swimming Club. Aged 18, Don completed two years National Service where he was stationed both in Egypt and Germany. He then went on to serve in the Territorial Army as a Lance-Bombardier in the Royal Horse Artillery from 1953 to 1956.
Later, in 1963, the judo club moved premises to Bracknell Sports Centre, and then in 1979 to the current dojo at Pinewood in Wokingham, Berkshire. As a youngster on the Pinewood tatami, I remember Don would always tell us how we “got off lightly here, at this new Pinewood Club,” and that after doing a thousand uchi komi or so, “this was nothing compared to the training at Bracknell”. Bracknell was the start of something special, and the judoka who started there, do carry with them the air of pioneers; Mark Fricker, Dave Rance, Michael Moose Mercieca, Lynn Tilley, Paul Knight, Colin Small. Many of whom were at the Dinner, and many still compete or coach today, ever loyal to Pinewood and above all to Don, who had that remarkable ability to instil in all his pupils a love and a passion for judo that lasts a lifetime.
The records, Don has achieved as a coach, are staggering. Every year since 1968, when Micky Courtney won the first National title for Pinewood, Don has produced at least one British National Champion. In fact, over the last six decades, Don Werner has produced 822 National medallists, and 296 of those are British Champions. I feel that is worth repeating: One Man = Two Hundred and Ninety Six British Champions.
Don coached four of us to become world champions. Karen Roberts and Georgina Singleton won junior world titles in 1992 and 1994. Karen was the youngest Junior World Champion in history. Lynn Tilley won five World Masters, and I myself became Senior World Champion in 1993. All four of us began as children with Don Werner (Georgie was just four years old when she started judo) and it was Don who took us all the way up what they now call the pathway, but what Don called ‘hard work, sweat and tears,’ to become the best judo players in the world.
Four Olympians: One Olympic Silver Medal: Nine European titles: Two Commonwealth Titles: 28 World Medals: 132 Black Belts: 144 British National Squad Members; Just some of the statistics and medals, that Don has produced, and that he would admit now and then to being ‘moderately satisfied’ about.
One of his proudest records was Pinewood’s 38 consecutive wins of the Devizes Top Club Trophy – a record unlikely to ever be beaten. Don was proud of this, because of the way the club members all rallied around each other, which he saw as a mark of the Club spirit. For Devizes, retired members would come out of retirement, fighters living in Scotland would fly down and make sure they attended and everyone would stay until the end of the event and until the last Pinewood judoka had competed, just to cheer on from the side-lines. In his post-event write up, Don would always mention all the fighters and not just the medallists, believing that “every member plays a part in winning the Devizes team trophy, it’s not just about the winners. All the judoka who have trained with the medallists have played a part in winning the trophy.” Indeed one of Don Werner’s greatest legacies is the huge Pinewood family he leaves behind him, united and loyal.
By the wider judo community, Don Werner will be remembered as one of the greatest coaches that has ever lived: a free thinker, who developed his own highly successful coaching system in his own way, often flying in the face of authority, refusing to tick appropriate boxes or ingratiate himself to anyone. Many coaches, officials and most referees (!) speak warmly of Don, a mentor for younger coaches and friend of his peers. There is no doubt that the sight of Don in his leather jacket and his humorous comments at events around the country and continent will be sorely missed by many.
But way beyond the medals, and the records, and immeasurably more important is the legacy he leaves behind in all of us, of those he ever taught. Of those of us lucky enough to have spent hours on the Pinewood canvas tatami. Of those of us he has called Fatheads and silly Squeakers. Who have stood in the queue on a Thursday night to get weighed in. Who have slept on the tatami in Holland, or Cornwall, or Belgium and who have done circuits at 3am in the morning: Those of us who have gone to Don with our fears. Those of us that have known the confidence Don gives you just by standing on the side of the mat, when you fight. Those of us, who now as adults, still rely daily upon lessons Don Werner taught us as children on that canvas tatami.
We all have our tales about how Don has impacted on us, and I would like to end by sharing one with you that I think reflects Don Werner and his brilliance.
I am stood on the mat, just about to go onto the 1992 European final. Don is by my side as I psyche up, and he says something along the lines of, “Come on girlie, you can do this”. I remember I replied rather robotically, “I’ll do my best.” And that’s when Don stopped me jumping up and down, put an arm on my shoulder and said “No Nik, don’t do your best. Do better than your best. When you think there is nothing more left in the bag there is always a little bit more if you dig deep for it. Do better than your best.”
Don Werner brought out the best in all of us, in all his pupils. He took our weaknesses and helped us conquer them. He took our strengths and made them stronger. He made us better than our best. And that I believe, to be his greatest legacy of all.
Don Werner is survived by his son Dean Werner, his daughter, Kerry Sowden and his two granddaughters, Emma and Sophie Sowden.
The funeral will be held on Friday, 31st January, 11.15-12.45 at the Easthampstead Park Crematorium, Nine Mile Ride, Wokingham, Berkshire, RG40 3DW. Afterwards there will be refreshments for everyone at Pinewood Bar, Pinewood Leisure Centre, Old Wokingham Road, Wokingham, Berkshire, RG40 3AQ.
We will be having family flowers only and if you would like to make a donation, then the family have chosen two charities. Any cheques should be made payable either to the Bowel and Cancer Research or Pinewood Judo Club and sent to Ford Mears & Partners Funeral Directors, 242 Farnborough Road, Farnborough, Hampshire, GU14 7JW. Please mark on the reverse of the cheque “In memory of Don Werner”
Bowel & Cancer Research has been chosen because of its research in finding a cure for bowel cancer.
Pinewood Judo Club has been a registered charity for many years and has been Don’s life and passion. His family are keen to do anything they can to ensure Don’s legacy continues. Any donations will be put to good use in developing local talent in their quest to be future champions.
John Divall will be collating numbers to help us with catering arrangements, so if you are planning to attend it would be helpful if you could let him know please by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone on 01344-860603, mobile 07557988418.