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Emery Lehman skates at the Junior World Championships in Italy last February

Emery Lehman skates at the Junior World Championships in Italy last February, where he won the 5,000-meter race. He has since dropped 18 seconds and is less than a second away from setting the world record. | Courtesy of Steven Penland

Emery Lehman needed a break.

The Oak Park-River Forest senior was trying to settle in back home last spring after four months of long-track speed skating in such far-flung destinations as Sochi (Russia), Collalbo (Italy), Inzell (Germany), Salt Lake City, Kolomna (Russia) and Heerenveen (Netherlands).

While in Europe, he’d imagine playing lacrosse at OPRF, taking the ice for the Huskies’ hockey team and getting together with friends at Johnnie’s Beef in Elmwood Park.

As he sat at Caribou Coffee in downtown Oak Park upon his return, Lehman admitted he had to sort out whether he wanted to go through the grind of what it takes to be a world-caliber athlete.

Last month he answered his doubts at the U.S. Single Distance Championships in Salt Lake City. Three months after turning 17, Lehman took third, some four seconds behind Olympian Jonathan Kuck in the 5,000 meters, while clocking a personal-best of 6 minutes, 24.73 seconds.

His coach, Jeff Klaiber, said Lehman accomplished all his goals.

“To get on the World Cup team, which he did,” Klaiber said. “To do well in the 5,000, which is the race we’re focusing on this year. And to do well in the 1,500. He did a personal best in both races, so it was a really good start to the season.”

The time that earned his gold medal in the 5,000 meters at the World Junior Championships in Collalbo last February was 6:38.76. He has continued his assault on the record book with a U.S. junior record of 6:20.57 at the World Cup in Calgary and a 6:19.87 Sunday at the World Cup stop in Salt Lake City, which is .8 off the junior world mark.

Klaiber said Lehman’s second trip to the World Cup trials showed how much he has improved.

“Last year was really the first time he raced as a senior,” Klaiber said, “and he did well with the big boys this year. He’s more of a veteran and had a better feel for the competition itself.”

Marcia Lehman, Emery’s mother, has noticed a shift in recent weeks.

“He’s really matured,” she said of Emery. “He’s in a grove. You’re more motivated when you see success.”

That motivation extends to a topic Emery Lehman was reluctant to raise before the summer — representing the United States at the Sochi Winter Olympics in February. He said OPRF classmates brought up the subject without understanding all the factors that goes into making the team.

Faced with the decision whether to become a typical Oak Park teenager who plays high school sports and hangs out with friends, or to follow an Olympic path, Lehman came to an epiphany. Albeit, with a dash of fate.

Lehman, a member of the Franklin Park Speedskating Club, hurt his ankle over the summer, which shortened his training schedule by a month. And OPRF hired a new hockey coach, who told the Lehmans he didn’t want to take the chance that Emery would hurt himself and derail his Olympic track.

Emery Lehman had a chance to breathe.

“As soon as the world championships ended, I thought if I can do that well with all the stuff that happened, I’d like to see what I can do when I’m 100 percent,” he said. “The last part of my season was a lot of skating and a lot of traveling.”

This semester, Lehman said prior to a Nov. 3 time trial at the Pettit National Ice Center in Milwaukee, that he’s ready to take the steps necessary to skate for Team USA. 

“I’m going to the World Cup to qualify for the Olympic Team,” he said. “Then I have to qualify for the spots that I qualified for at the Olympic Trials.”

More focused on skating than ever, Lehman has one more World Cup meet, in Astana, Kazakhstan, before returning home prior to the Olympic Trials Dec. 27-Jan. 1 in Salt Lake City.

Klaiber, who’s from Evanston, believes the teenager will be representing the United States in Sochi, come Feb. 7.

“It’s an Olympic year, no one knows how anyone is going to do,” Klaiber said. “So I’m just hoping that Emery has a really strong feel and a great competition.

“(At the Trials) I hope he wins the 5,000 meters — that’s my goal for him. That’s not out of the question with his trajectory of improvement. If we keep on working on what we’ve been working on, the sky’s the limit for him.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story listed Lehman's grade in school incorrectly. He is a senior at Oak Park-River Forest, not a junior.

Video interview with Emery Lehman

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