Emery Lehman, a 17-year-old U.S. Olympic speedskater, lives down the street from me.
Emery is the youngest male member of the American team in Sochi and regarded as the next big thing in U.S. long track speedskating, although maybe not just yet.
Speaking as someone who is so nutty about the Olympics that I once stayed in a Montreal mental hospital to attend the 1976 Summer Games, this is pretty exciting stuff.
I figure I’ve been rooting for American athletes in the Olympics as far back as Billy Kidd skiing to a silver medal in 1964, but this is the first time I’ve ever actually known an Olympic athlete.
That helps explain why I came unglued shouting at the television while watching Emery’s extraordinary come-from-behind upset win in the 10,000-meter race at the Olympic trials, although my neighbors — none of whom admits to ever having bunked in a mental hospital — seem even more excited.
Some of them went so far as to fashion a set of Olympic rings from what look like hula hoops and Christmas lights and affixed them to the Lehmans’ front porch.
Saying I “know” Emery is a bit of an exaggeration. I know his parents, Dave and Marcia, and in the last couple of years have finally learned to tell Emery apart from his older brother Graham.
But I have been following the progress of Emery’s skating career for many years now, the way neighbors do, catching up during block parties and fencepost conversations.
The Lehmans’ story is a fascinating case study of the parental challenges of raising a kid with a special talent and how you nurture that talent without allowing it to crowd out everything else.
In an era when even junior high athletes are pushed to specialize in one sport, this is no small feat. For an elite-level, world class athlete such as Emery, it’s practically impossible.
Yet Dave and Marcia have done everything possible to make sure he has a normal upbringing, as normal as can be for a teenager who began December in Kazakhstan competing in a World Cup race and finished it in Salt Lake City fighting for a spot on the Olympic team.
Emery took up speedskating at age 9, when Marcia suggested it as a way for him to improve at hockey. He joined the Franklin Park Speedskating Club and quickly established himself as a wunderkind, winning both the short track and long track national championships for his age group when he was 12.
By 14, he started concentrating on long track, made the U.S. junior team and began recording times never seen by somebody his age in the long-distance events that are his specialty.
“That’s when we knew this was going to get serious,” Dave says.
Serious for many Olympic hopefuls means a push for home schooling so they can concentrate on their training. For speedskaters, it can include relocating closer to one of the few Olympic ovals in the U.S., notably Salt Lake City, home of the national team.
It also usually means cutting other activities out of their lives that might result in injury. Beyond an Olympic medal, speedskaters can make a good living — even get rich — competing professionally in northern Europe, where the sport is very popular with the Dutch in particular.
The Lehmans, though, decided early on that they would keep Emery in high school — and make the 180-mile round trip trek three times weekly for practice at the Petit National Ice Center in Milwaukee, the nearest Olympic oval to Chicago.
In between, he trains in his basement on a homemade “slide board” with his coach monitoring via Skype.
They also allowed Emery to continue playing hockey and lacrosse at Oak Park-River Forest High School, where he is a senior, figuring the camaraderie of the team sports would be a welcome break from the solitary life of a skater.
“We didn’t want him to have any regrets,” Marcia says.
Marcia recalls that when Emery told some of the older skaters last fall that he was on his way to Homecoming, a decorated Olympic hero wistfully told him to take lots of pictures, having missed out on that opportunity for himself.
As you would expect, the Lehmans also have always put their primary emphasis on Emery getting his education. An honors student, Emery typically does homework on the trip home from Milwaukee. He plans to major in engineering in college, but hasn’t picked one yet. Staying close to an ice oval remains a major consideration.
Based on his best times, Lehman is not considered a medal contender this year in either of the two events in which will compete — the 5K on Saturday and 10K on Feb. 18.
“He’s not going to medal,” his parents say bluntly.
“If he’s top 15, we’d be very happy,” Dave says. “This time around is really just about the experience.”
But assuming he sticks with it, stays healthy and continues to progress, Emery could be a medal favorite by the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea — and beyond.
Olympic veterans Shani Davis of Chicago and Brian Hansen of Glenview are considered stronger medal hopefuls this year, and I’ll be rooting for them.
But they’re not my neighbors.