Oak Park native Emery Lehman, who won a bronze medal as part of the U.S.A. men’s speedskating pursuit team at the Beijing Winter Olympics in February, returned home to take part in a question-and-answer session moderated by Park District of Oak Park President Jan Arnold at the Cheney Mansion April 20.
The event was sponsored by the Parks Foundation of Oak Park, which is spearheading a fundraising campaign to help the Park District construct a Community Recreation Center.
Lehman brought his bronze medal along and answered questions from not only Arnold but from the audience. He was excited about being back in his hometown.
“I wish I was here longer,” said Lehman. “I’ve been here for three and a half weeks and I wish I could train here [instead of Salt Lake City, where he currently lives]. I love Oak Park; it’s a lot of fun and it’s always great to be with my parents. I’m happy to be back seeing friends and family.”
Lehman told Arnold and the audience how he got involved with speedskating, starting with lessons at the age of 4.
“I was at a hockey clinic and saw a flyer for speedskating,” he said. “I was a pretty good skater at the time and my mother [Marcia] thought it’d help me become a faster hockey player.
“I said I would do it as long as I didn’t have to wear a skinsuit,” Lehman added with a laugh. “I called it a leotard — and I still do to this day.”
Lehman was a well-rounded athlete as a kid. In addition to ice hockey and speedskating, he played lacrosse, baseball, flag football, floor hockey, basketball, soccer and tennis.
“My mother signed me up for everything,” he said. “[Ice] hockey was my first love, and I also enjoyed speedskating and lacrosse.”
Lehman feels the time management he developed growing up has helped him in adulthood.
“It’s been really tough,” Lehman said about balancing schoolwork along with training. “I’m going for my master’s from Johns Hopkins University. It’s just one online class, but it feels more like a full course load at Marquette University [where he got his undergraduate degree]. It’s caused me stressful days and nights, but it’s something I’ve been doing since I was 14.”
Like many other kids, Lehman wanted to do something special in sports, and he believed speedskating was his best opportunity to accomplish this endeavor. He met and was encouraged by legends such as Bonnie Blair, Shani Davis, Dan Jansen and Apollo Ohno.
“I was at a competition in Cleveland, and Apollo was there,” he said. “He had three Olympic medals at the time and he was on the same ice with me. It was really cool, and I determined that I wanted to try for the Olympics.”
Lehman has qualified for the Olympics three times, and he’s only 25 years old.
“I don’t think there are many speedskaters who have been to the Olympics three times before my age. It’s incredible to think about,” Lehman said. “Winning the Olympic bronze this year still hasn’t quite sunk in yet, because I’ve been competing and meeting new people.”
This year’s Olympic experience was vastly different for Lehman than his previous two. Due to COVID-19, he and his teammates were restricted to the Olympic village and had to test every day.
“It didn’t feel like we were in China,” he said. “We had to go directly to the rink and then directly back to the village once we were done with practice or our event. The past Olympic experiences were about not only sport, but also camaraderie among athletes from other countries in the village. But in Beijing, everyone wore masks and was concerned about catching COVID. It was an isolated experience.”
Even so, Lehman isn’t finished with the Olympics yet. He wants to compete in the next Winter Olympics, which take place in Italy in 2026. And he realizes achieving this feat will require making a continued sacrifice.
“With the type of training we do, there isn’t much time for a social life,” said Lehman. “We train three days, then take a day off. We spend a lot of time biking in Park City, Utah, and have two training sessions each day. We stay very busy.”
Lehman plans to complete his master’s degree within the next two years and would like to become an engineer. While he’d like the 2026 Olympics to be his last, he says if Salt Lake City gets the Games in 2030, it’d be hard for him to skip.
“It’d be pretty tough not to go,” he said. “If they’re in your backyard, you’ve got to go.”
Lehman is helping the Parks Foundation with the fundraising for the Community Recreation Center and believes it would great for the community.
“I like that the rec center would be for everyone, especially for those who don’t have anywhere to go after school,” he said. “I think it’s great it’d be free and open to the public.”