Emery Lehman is the youngest man on the U.S. Olympic speed skating team.
He’s also a senior at Oak Park River Forest High School where classmates, staff, and local officials gave him a big send off last month.
“We decided to go with red, white, and blue today,” said Hannah Silverman, one of Emery’s close friends. “So, we’re representing the flag. We’ve got some flannel red, white, and blue.”Silverman stood in the school’s lobby with five other seniors who have known Lehman since they were in grammar school.
When did his friends realize he might be a national athlete?
“Last year,” Silverman said. “Freshman year.”
“As soon as I met him, I just knew it,” said Steve Samuels, another close friend. “USA in the blood.”
Emery will be Oak Park River Forest’s 12th Olympic athlete, but speed skating is not a school-sponsored sport, so how does a kid get into it?
Emery’s parents, Dave and Marcia Lehman say he was 9.
“Marcia, when she was at the Franklin Park Speed Skating Club saw a flyer for speed skating and saying, to Emery, ‘Why don’t you give this a try? This might help with your hockey,’” Dave recalled.
“And he didn’t want to do it,” Marcia continued. “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 other ice sport was hockey.
“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 said.
“So I brought him back the next week, kicking and screaming, and he put on a pair — 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 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,” Emery said.
“When he was 12, he won the U.S. short track and the U.S. long track championship,” Dave said. “And so that was a nice sign, but probably the biggest was when he was 14 and he broke seven 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 trains six days a week when he’s home. His parents drive him to Milwaukee, Wisc. four of those days to skate at the Pettit National Ice Center. It’s the closest Olympic-sized skating oval, a mere three hours round trip.
Have his parents done the math on how many hours he trains and how many miles they’ve driven?
“Like the Outliers?” Marcia said.
“We don’t want to do that,” Dave answered.
“No, we don’t want to do that math,” Marcia said. “I certainly don’t want to do that math because I’m the driver. Although, Dave’s put in his fair share.”
Marcia says Emery took summer school the last few years in order to have a short senior year. He attends school in the mornings and trains in the afternoons and evenings.
John Stelzer is the athletic director at Oak Park River Forest. He says what’s more remarkable is that speed skating isn’t even Emery’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 worlds about him.”
A lot of high school athletes do play more than one sport, but Olympians? I went back to his friends and had to ask if he had a social life.
“Yeah, yeah, he does a really good job,” Silverman said.
“Yeah, when he gets home from his long trips we’re always able to see him and hang out,” said another friend, Brian.
But, they say, there’s one sport he’s not so good at.
“People can beat Olympians in ping pong,” Samuels said. “We all do it. Every week, we beat him in ping pong. He literally has never beaten me.”
Emery is currently in Sochi. He was the top American finisher for the men’s 5,000 meter race, placing 16th overall.
Emery will compete on Tuesday, Feb. 18 in the men’s 10K.