Lehman’s road to Pyeongchang Olympics full of adversity

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Emery Lehman smiled for a photo after he made the U.S. Olympic Team as a Team Pursuit Specialist. It will be Lehman’s second appearance in the Olympics. He is a junior in the College of Engineering (Photo by Brendan Ploen).

Emery Lehman never thought his road to Pyeongchang, South Korea, for the 2018 Winter Olympics would be easy.

Lehman, a junior in the College of Engineering and a long track speedskater, will pack his bags and head to the Winter Olympics in less than one month to represent Marquette and Team USA after four years of grueling civil engineering classes and a bout with mononucleosis.

“It’s definitely nice to know that I’m going back (to the Olympics), but at the same time, the hard work kind of starts now,” Lehman said after his final race of the Olympic Trials at the Pettit National Ice Center in Milwaukee.

It’s the second Olympic appearance for Lehman, who will race as a specialist in the team pursuit event, which entails three skaters racing as a team. The last Marquette athlete to make it to the Winter games was former student Brian Hansen in 2014, who also qualified in long track speedskating. Hansen will be joining Lehman in Pyeongchang as he qualified in the 1,500 meter race.

The stress level was high all week for Lehman. He did not find out he made the team until after the final race on the last day of the Olympic Trials. It proved that his first appearance at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi was no fluke.

“It’s definitely better the second time around than the first time around,” Lehman said. “(I was) kind of on pins and needles because you never really know until the weekend is over, especially with how racing goes, but I knew that I had to come out and race really well, and leave it up to U.S. Speedskating to make the decision.”

Other competitors had the same sense of pressure in the trials.

“There was more pressure for the Olympic Trials rather than the Olympics themselves,” fellow speedskater Joey Mantia of Ocala, Florida, said. “The first race going in, nerves are just at an all-time high … It’s a high-stress situation.”

Before the team pursuit event, Lehman won his first event, the 5,000-meter race, with a time of 6 minutes and 27.9 seconds, a personal best. He also competed in the 1,000-meter race, where he missed out on an Olympic spot by just two-tenths of a second, less than a blink of an eye.

Even the win in the 5K race was bittersweet. Although Lehman emerged victorious, he holds the third reserve spot in world rankings since Team USA did not qualify anyone in the World Cup cycle. He’ll have to wait to see if other countries decline spots and see whether Russian skaters can compete despite a state-sponsored doping program. If they are found ineligible or other skaters are unable to race, Lehman will get an opportunity in the 5,000-meter event as well.

“That is very common,” Chris Needham, chairman of the U.S. Speedskating long track committee said. “A lot of countries have very high standards for what their athletes need to do to compete at the Olympics and if you haven’t met that, it doesn’t matter if you are on the list or not, you don’t get that spot.”

Competing at the Trials was the end of a long journey back from a battle with mononucleosis his sophomore year.

“Mono took a lot out of me and put things on hold for quite a while,” Lehman said. “It was a lot of ups and downs with training because it was tough to know when my body was feeling good and when it wasn’t. It was pretty tough just to get through each training day.”

While Lehman was battling mono, he also was in the process of transitioning to a new coach. His previous coach, Jeff Klaiber was with Lehman from the age of 14 until the summer entering his sophomore year of college, seven and a half seasons. Klaiber was with Lehman while he competed at the Sochi games, but Lehman realized that it was time to move on.

“I just outgrew that stage and was ready for a new coach,” Lehman said. “My coach that I have now, Eric Cepuran, we’ve been on the same page, and I think he really respects me a little more. I have a little bit more of a freedom when it comes to training, workouts that I want to do and then I think there’s a lot better of a dynamic than these two, which is definitely helpful.”

After a coaching change, mono and the Trials, returning to Marquette has been put on hold because of the Olympics. Lehman will continue to live in Milwaukee and train at the Pettit Center with Hansen and Mantia, his other team pursuit members.

If there’s ever a reason for not returning to class, making the Olympics is it. “Now I have to email Ms. Lagerman, (my academic advisor), and let her know,” Lehman said.

There have been ups and downs on the road to Pyeongchang, but now Lehman will get the opportunity he’s been waiting for: a shot at an Olympic medal.

“With all of the sacrifices and things that I’ve had to overcome these last few years, I’m not saying I had the hardest road to make it back to the Olympics, but it was tough,” Lehman said. “I’m just so thankful I made it back.”