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Speedskating road to Olympics goes through Chicago

Speedskater Emery Lehman U.S. trains Adler ArenSkating Center during 2014 Winter Olympics Sochi RussiFriday Feb. 7 2014. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

Speedskater Emery Lehman of the U.S. trains at the Adler Arena Skating Center during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Friday, Feb. 7, 2014. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

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Updated: February 8, 2014 12:18AM

SOCHI, Russia — On the wall of the U.S. speedskating training room in Salt Lake City, there’s a picture of a 10-year-old Emery Lehman clutching a plaque awarded to him by the Amateur Skating Association of Illinois and beaming as Shani Davis — the Shani Davis — poses with his arm around him.

“I was like, ‘Oh, my God, it’s Shani Davis,’ ” Lehman recalled with a laugh. “Now, to be on the same team as him — it definitely hasn’t hit me. He’s such a great ­athlete, and I’m just a kid that’s happy to be here.”

He’s more than that, of course. If Davis is U.S. speedskating’s past and present, Lehman — a senior at Oak Park-River Forest High School who has toted around two backpacks in Sochi, one for skating and one for homework — is its future.

They’re two of the biggest reasons Chicago will continue to be a hotbed for speedskating. Four of the nine American long-track skaters in Sochi hail from the area — Davis, Lehman, Brian Hansen (Glenview) and Patrick Meek (Northbrook) — with a fifth, Jonathan Kuck, from Champaign.

“Most people think of winter sports and they think of Utah, or Colorado, but the Chicago area has had one of the most prestigious histories as far as speedskating goes,” said Meek, who started skating at age 4 at the Northbrook Speedskating Club, where his dad coached. “There’s guys like Dave Cruikshank, and Shani, and even Bonnie Blair from just down the road in Champaign. There are tons of people that have come out of the Chicago area who’ve been really great skaters. We’re really fortunate to be a part of that.”

With speedskating clubs in Northbrook, Park Ridge, Glen ­Ellyn, Franklin Park, and Evanston, the Chicago suburbs have been churning out elite skaters for years. And Davis’ larger-than-life presence in both skating history — he’s the two-time defending gold medalist in the 1,000 meters — and in the Chicago skating community can only help.

“To have a guy like that to look up to is super, super inspiring,” said Meek, who’s only three years younger than Davis at 28. “I’ve known Shani my entire life. He’s an amazing athlete and everything, but if he can do that, there’s no reason why I can’t, either. He makes a lot of kids feel that way. If you want to see someone who’s the most amazing person with kids ever, it’s Shani Davis.”

Hansen now lives and trains in Milwaukee. Lehman is planning to do the same. Meek moved to St. Louis in high school, then to Utah for college and to train. Davis, ­however, still calls Rogers Park home. He trains in Salt Lake City but spends his offseasons back home. And he’s a familiar face in speedskating clubs and banquets around the Chicago area.

“I’m Chicago to the fullest, man,” he said with a laugh. “I’m a real Chicagoan. I live in Chicago. These other guys live in the suburbs. . . . I pay Chicago taxes. I’m a real Chicagoan.”

Lehman — who also plays hockey and lacrosse — might have the same kind of effect down the road. At 17, he’s the youngest male American at the Olympics, and while he admitted he’s shooting for a respectable finish between 10th and 15th place in the 5,000 meters on Saturday, he’s seen as a future star in the sport — perhaps the next face of speedskating, for Chicago, and for the United States.

So maybe someday there will be a photo of an older Lehman, with his own medals around his neck, and his arm around an awestruck young skater hoping to follow in his footsteps.

“[Davis] was there with his ­medals, and he was giving out plaques, and he was signing stuff, and I got a picture with him,” Lehman said. “And it was just the coolest thing in the world.”


Twitter: @MarkLazerus

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