By Brad Spencer
When we first met Emery Lehman he was just a normal kid, spending nearly every waking minute either on solid ground or solid ice. But that was two years ago, Lehman is floating now. All those trips up to Milwaukee three times a week to train at the Pettit National Ice Center, all the workouts in the basement of his home on Harvey in Oak Park have paid off.
The Oak Park-River Forest High School senior will compete in not one but two speedskating events at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia next month. He'll be a bonafide Olympian, and yet he's still just a normal kid.
Ninety-three text messages, 53 posts on Facebook and Twitter, and that was minutes after he shocked the speedskating world by edging out a spot in the 10,000 meters at the U.S. trials a few weeks ago. He wasn't expected to qualify in the 10,000. It was the 5,000 meters that Lehman had already achieved so much in, punching his ticket to the Olympics with a runner-up finish in that event. But the 17-year-old rallied at the end of the 10,000 to win by just 0.07 seconds, literally in the blink of an eye.
"It was, lights out, the ultimate shocker," said his mother Marcia, who, when Emery was 9 years old and an aspiring hockey player, convinced her son he should give speedskating a try, at least once. Perhaps it would help improve his hockey playing. "We were simply flabbergasted. To have your son competing in one event at the Olympics is mind blowing, two is just amazing."
Emery's father, Dave, a native of Brookfield and Emery's grandfather, Don, a longtime resident of that village, attended the race in Salt Lake City, Utah.
"The crowd went wild," recalled Dave. "It's no secret that that particular race can be a yawner. It's long, and when someone gets out in front they usually stay there. But the momentum started to build with about four laps to go and the crowd got into it more and more. It was exciting to watch."
Marcia was glad she didn't have to break the news to Emery that, due to school and other race obligations, he wouldn't be able to stay for the entire Olympics.
"He blew that away when he qualified in the 10,000 because that's the last of the speedskating races. It was his way of saying, 'I think I'll stay for the entire experience.'"
For the skater himself, it's still hitting Lehman what he's accomplished at such a young age. He's by far the youngest athlete on the Olympic speedskating team, and may be the youngest among the Olympic delegation.
"I'd have to say at this point I feel a big sigh of relief," he said one afternoon after school before beginning a daily workout. "There's no pressure anymore on making the team. I'm going to treat my races in Sochi like they are any other races. It's going to be a great experience. I'm not battling against any high expectations. It's just go and compete, same as always."
In the last two years, the word Olympics — considered "the O-word" in the Lehman household — has rarely been uttered. It certainly wasn't mentioned back in April when Lehman went down with an ankle injury that occurred during a lacrosse practice. He was put in a walking boot and told to stay off the ice for four weeks. And then to make matters worse, just as he was ready to start training again, he contracted strep throat and was out another 10 days.
"It was a rugged couple of months," Marcia said, "but he really jumped right back in where he left off. And soon thereafter we were having little conversations with his coach about the possibility of you-know-what."
And now here he is, prepping to disembark on an experience he'll remember forever. He leaves with the rest of the U.S. Olympic speedskating team on Jan. 20 to train in Italy before moving on to Munich and then Sochi. At the close of the Olympics on Feb. 23, Lehman won't be headed back to Oak Park just yet. It's off to Norway to compete in the Junior World Championships. He's got a title to defend, you know.
As for the time away from school, Marcia said her son gets tremendous support from the OPRF High School faculty, including his counselor Heidi Lynch.
"Everyone has been phenomenal. They're giving him all his assignments ahead of time, and also he's a good student and knows what he has to do," she said of her son, who has aspirations of becoming an engineer. "He'll be doing school work while he's in the Olympic Village."
Marcia, Dave, Grandpa Don and Lehman's older brother, Graham, will be in Sochi to see him compete in the 5,000-meter race, but that's all.
"We'll support him from home when he competes in the 10,000. It's difficult for a family to spend that much time in another country, but we know he'll be in good hands and he knows we'll be rooting him on," said Marcia, who has a difficult time watching any of Lehman's races let alone an Olympic one.
Lehman said he hopes to get a few more ping-pong games in over at his friend's house and maybe drive around in his 2003 Pontiac Aztec before leaving. He's also looking forward to playing lacrosse again in the spring.
As for his post-Olympic aspirations, well, they of course involve graduating from high school and, who knows, maybe skating his way to Pyeongchang, South Korea in 2018.