By Marty Farmer
When Oak Park and River Forest High School senior and U.S. Olympic speed skater Emery Lehman spoke last week at Brooks Middle School, he brought with him one of the coolest, most confidential and arguably controversial items in the history of show and tell.
During the Q & A portion of the visit to his middle school alma mater, Lehman revealed a mysterious box with a shiny lacquer finish. Lehman pulled one side of the box out like a desk drawer and then opened it vertically. Lehman adeptly played on the curiosity of his young onlookers who were dying to know the contents.
What he pulled out of secret storage elicited thunderous applause from the students: his Olympic suit or "skin," which he wore during the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. Christian Bale in full Batman Kevlar couldn't have made a bigger impression.
"This is the top secret skin for U.S. speed skating," Lehman told his rapt audience. "Before we arrived at the Olympics, we had to sign a [confidentiality] form and not talk about the suit or reveal any pictures."
While the skin suits created controversy as some skaters complained they had no training time with the new material and believed aspects of the design actually slowed their times, Lehman remained unfazed. Unlike the Olympic suit, Lehman offers full transparency.
"The controversy came out after I had finished my races," Lehman said. "I didn't think about it much. I had two good races, one in the old skin and one in the new skin.
"Spandex can be uncomfortable," he added, "but after about six years it gets comfortable."
Truth be told, the precocious Lehman performed well at the Olympic oval in Russia, regardless of his outfit. He placed 16th in the 5,000 meters with a time of 6:29.94 and later placed 10th in the 10,000 meters with a time of 13:28.67 as the youngest male in the U.S. delegation and youngest speed skater from any country at the Olympics. After the games, he went directly to the World Junior Championships in Finland.
Since his return to Oak Park, Lehman has settled comfortably into life as a high school senior. He goes to classes, plays midfield for the OPRF lacrosse team, enjoys hanging out with his friends, and even has a date for the prom this weekend.
"I got right back into the swing of things pretty quickly," Lehman said about his return to high school. "Everybody who really knows me treated me like normal. Some people, who don't know me as well, look at me as the Olympian. Overall, it's been pretty good, though, and the support I have received from people around the school and community has been awesome."
Encouraged by his parents, Dave and Marcia, he embraced the idea of stopping by Brooks.
"I have an interesting story and I welcome people to hear it," Lehman said. "I love the fans and hopefully my story can inspire some of these kids. It's also nice to pay a visit back to Brooks and thank so many people who helped me."
During his 30-minute talk, Lehman spoke to the students about the importance of perseverance, determination, staying focused and setting goals, whether it's in school, sports, home or any aspect of life.
"Whether it was television or radio during the Olympics, I noticed the media always referred to me as '17-year-old Emery Lehman'," he told the Brooks students. "I guess age really matters to some people but not to me. I may be young but I know that things like hard work, focus and determination work for everyone at any age.
"Some people think that others are born with the talent to be an Olympian or perhaps their parents or grandparents were world-class athletes. Not in my case. I found something I was very passionate about with skating and worked really hard. In school and sports, I have had setbacks like anybody, but I stayed focused, and my parents, teachers and coaches have helped me along the way."
In addition to ample support from his parents (particularly his mom who serves as driver/calendar coordinator/publicist/confidant), Lehman cites his older brother, Graham, as a major influence in developing his passion for speed skating. Graham, who studies engineering, is an accomplished tennis player at Lehigh University. As a kid, Emery tried various sports based on the encouragement of his mom and brother before finally finding skating.
"Graham has a passion for tennis much like how I love to skate," Lehman said. "It's inspiring to see his commitment to tennis. When we were growing up, we were really competitive. We played basketball in the alley or he would kill me in tennis, but then I got him in roller hockey. It was a really fun, competitive feeling between us."
After he graduates from OPRF, Lehman plans on taking a few college courses at Triton over the summer to get ahead academically when he enrolls at Marquette University, where he will also study engineering in the fall. Of course, plenty of speed-skating training is part of his summer itinerary as well.
"I've told Emery if he doesn't want to do [speed skating] anymore, I'm the first one he should tell," Marcia Lehman said. "It calls for a lot of hard work and sacrifice, but he has a true passion for the sport. That's what's important, whether he's a U.S. Olympian or speed skating on any level."
Lehman regularly trains at the Pettit National Ice Center in Milwaukee and is coached by two-time Olympian Jeff Klaiber.
"I'm not really sure yet what a typical college week is going to be like," said Lehman, "but I'll train one to two times a day with my coach [Klaiber]. Being closer to Jeff in order to train will be great and I think really help my improvement and development as a speed skater."
He's even dabbling in Dutch so he can speak the language reasonably well during his next visit to the Netherlands.
With all due respect to his beloved hometown of Oak Park, impending college digs in Milwaukee, and wherever else his sport takes him in the near future, Lehman has one destination firmly fixed in his dream-filled mind.
The 2018 Olympics in Pyeonchang, South Korea.