Precocious speedskater ahead of his time

Three-sport high school athlete becoming strong contender for spot on Winter Olympic team

Emery Lehman

Emery Lehman at Paul Hruby Ice Arena in Oak Park. (J.Geil photo / November 15, 2012)

In an era when most talented young athletes pick one sport and play it year-round, Emery Lehman is a throwback to the age when kids played the field.

He is an all-star defenseman for the Oak Park-River Forest High School hockey team. He is a lacrosse midfielder for both the high school and a travel team.

At the same time, the Oak Park junior is among the most talented young speedskaters in the world, good enough to spend the next two weekends racing with the U.S. senior national team in Holland and Russia.

Lehman, 16, makes his senior World Cup debut Friday in the B division 5,000-meter race at speedskating's mecca, the Thialf oval in Heerenveen, Holland. He earned that spot by finishing a close second to Glenview's Brian Hansen, 22, a 2010 Olympic silver medalist, at U.S. team trials in Milwaukee earlier this month.

"I know I'm doing well, but I didn't know it would be this well," Lehman said via Skype. "I'm a little surprised."

Lehman clocked 6 minutes, 28.56 seconds. That made him the youngest skater to break 6:30, according to his coach, Jeff Klaiber, a two-time Olympian from Evanston. It also was a 10-second improvement on Lehman's personal best a year ago.

He was the youngest male skater at last season's Junior World Championships (up to age 19), where Lehman finished fifth in the 3,000. He still has three seasons of junior eligibility left.

Lehman drew a 5,000 pairing with 36-year-old Dutchman Bob de Jong, a four-time Olympian and 2006 gold medalist who began international competition before Lehman was born.

"Emery is precocious," Klaiber said.

No matter what era he represents, Lehman is ahead of his time — so much so that by the end of this season he may have to decide the moment has come to devote himself completely to speedskating. The next Winter Olympics are barely 15 months away, and Lehman is becoming a strong contender for a spot on the U.S. team.

"Right now, things are working well as they are," Klaiber said. "We won't draw a hard line in the sand.

"I think it's a great psychological benefit to be in different sports. If you have a crappy day in one, you can have fun in the other. It takes the pressure off in each sport."

Lehman feels the same way. Olympics or not, he intends to play lacrosse again this spring and summer and would like to be back with the hockey team next year.

"Hockey is a lot more exciting than just turning left all the time on the ice," Lehman said, referring to racing on an oval.

"Hockey and lacrosse also are good cross-training sports. Off ice, speedskaters usually do inline or bike. I'm not a fan of those."

Klaiber, who played hockey until he was 14, has one main reservation over that approach. He worries enough about the 6-foot, 164-pound Lehman getting hurt in hockey that the coach is scared to watch him play.

"I'm pretty cautious," Lehman said.

"He delivers absolute monster hits," said Oak Park varsity hockey co-coach Andrew Corvo. "When he hits another kid, you can feel it."

Corvo said the balance and explosiveness Lehman develops in speedskating helps in hockey.

"He doesn't get knocked down, and he is always first to the puck," Corvo said.

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