Ten Chicago area athletes will be competing in the Sochi Olympics next month and five of them are speed skaters.
The youngest of those speed skaters is 17-year-old Oak Park River Forest senior Emery Lehman.
On January 17, just a few days before he left for team training in Italy, students and staff packed the lobby of Oak Park River Forest High School for big send off.
“We decided to go with red, white, and blue today,” Hannah Silverman, one of Emery’s close friends, said explaining the outfits she and her other friends were wearing. “So, we’re representing the flag, we’ve got some flannel red, white, and blue.”Emery will be Oak Park River Forest’s 12th Olympian.
But speed skating is not a school-sponsored sport, so how exactly does a kid get into it?
Emery was nine years old, according to his parents, Dave and Marcia Lehman.“She saw a flyer for speed skating and said, to Emery, why don’t you give this a try, it might help with your hockey,” said Dave Lehman.
“And he didn’t want to do it,” Marcia Lehman said. “And I’m like you can try something once. If you don’t like it after that, I don’t have a problem. But try it once.”
At the time, Emery’s was playing youth hockey at the Franklin Park Ice Arena.
“I remember I was a little discouraged because I was wearing the skin suit and I only had hockey skates and everyone was kind of beating me,” Emery Lehman said. “Once I got speed skates, I remember, just, I’m a very competitive kid, so being able to compete with all those kids was a lot of fun.”
“They loaned him a pair of club skates and he put ‘em on and he looked down at his skates and looked at me in the bleachers and just shrugged his shoulders and started to skate and he loved it,” Marcia Lehman said.
“When he was 12, he won the U.S. short track and the U.S. long track championship,” Dave Lehman said, “And so that was a nice sign, but probably the biggest was when he was 14 and he broke 7 minutes in the 5,000 meter. No other 14-year-old had ever done that in the world. And so that’s when we knew he had a particular talent.”
Emery Lehman trains six days a week, and drives to Milwaukee four of those days to skate at the Pettit National Ice Center. It’s the closest Olympic-sized skating oval.When asked if they’ve ever done the math on how many hours of training and miles of driving the Lehman family has logged, Marcia and Dave both laughed and said they “don’t want to do that math.”
Marcia Lehman said Emery took summer school the last few years in order to have a shorter senior year schedule. He attends school in the mornings and drives to Milwaukee to train in the afternoons and evenings. John Stelzer, the athletic director at Oak Park River Forest, said what’s more remarkable is that speed skating isn’t even Emery Lehman’s only sport. He played hockey up until this year and will play Lacrosse in the spring.
“The most incredible thing for me is Emery is really a well-rounded, grounded man,” Stelzer said. “The fact that he wants to come back and play Lacrosse for his school after being in the Olympics says world’s about him.”
A lot of high school athletes do play more than one sport, but an Olympian? His close friends said he does a good job of balancing school, speedskating and a social life. But, they told WBEZ there’s one sport he can’t quite conquer: “People can beat Olympians in ping pong,” said Steve Samuels, another close friend. “Every week, we beat him in ping pong. He literally has never beaten me.”
Emery Lehman will compete in Sochi on February 8th and 18th in the men’s 5,000 and 10,000 meter races.
Becky Vevea is a producer for WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation.