Emery Lehman’s legs were shaking as he stepped to the starting line at the U.S. Olympic speedskating trials.
He always gets nervous before his races, and there was a lot on the line this time.
The 17-year-old high school senior staved off his pre-race jitters and fatigue over the closing laps of the 5,000 meters Friday night to earn an Olympic berth, finishing second behind Jonathan Kuck.
”I just still can’t believe,” Lehman said. ”It probably won’t hit me for a few days.”
Not that Lehman has time to let his upcoming trip to Sochi, Russia, sink in.
He’ll be back on the ice Saturday morning in the 500, where Tucker Fredricks will be favored to earn his third Olympic berth at 29 and Mitch Whitmore will go for his second straight Olympics.
Heather Richardson and Brittany Bowe are the heavy favorites in the women’s 500.
Lehman was excited to call his mother back home in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, Ill., to let her know he’d made it. His father and grandfather were at the Utah Olympic Oval to cheer him on.
”My mom can’t handle it,” Lehman said. ”She came out here for the Salt Lake World Cup and watched every race but mine.”
Lehman’s mother told him she would go to Sochi if he made the U.S. team.
”But she probably won’t watch,” he said. ”You can find her outside.”
Kuck won the 5,000 in 6 minutes, 19.75 seconds.
He was a silver medalist in team pursuit at the Vancouver Olympics and finished eighth in the 10,000, his only individual event. He romped to victory in the 5,000 with a time of 6 minutes, 19.75 seconds.
”It’s different,” Kuck said. ”I guess it’s a lot more exciting to make your first Olympic team than the second one. But I’ve done it once before, so hopefully I’ll be better prepared this time.”
Skating in the last of 10 pairs, Lehman took second in 6:25.72. The third spot went to Patrick Meek, who finished in 6:27.90. The Olympic team will be officially announced on Jan. 1.
With a Chicago Bears scarf around his neck, Lehman smiled on the podium next to Kuck, who sprayed a bottle of champagne in celebration. Kuck, who doesn’t drink, passed the bottle to Patrick Meek, who gladly took a swig.
”I haven’t had a drink in about 18 months,” Meek said. ”I figure if there was a time to take a little bit of champagne it was on the podium.”
Lehman’s other favorite team is the Chicago Blackhawks, though this is the first winter in 12 years that he isn’t playing hockey. In the spring, he’ll go back to playing lacrosse.
Day two of the long-track trials is all about speed.
Besides Fredricks and Whitmore in the men’s 500, other contenders are Joey Mantia and Jonathan Garcia.
Fredricks has never been better than 12th at two Olympics. He had one victory during the World Cup season.
Whitmore holds the American record in the 500 and has been no worse than 15th over eight World Cup races. He was 37th four years ago in Vancouver.
On the women’s side, former inline skater Richardson won the World Sprint Championship last January.
Bowe, who switched to speedskating from college basketball in late 2010, hasn’t been worse than 11th in eight World Cup races.
On Friday, Jilleanne Rookard earned her second straight trip to the Olympics with a commanding victory in the 3,000, coming back from couple of poor seasons that left her wondering if she wanted to keep skating. She actually walked away from the sport less than a year ago, taking four months off before returning to the ice.
”Physically, emotionally, mentally – everything just kind of collapsed,” she recalled.
The 30-year-old Rookard won the first event of the trials with a time of 4:09.66 – more than 4 seconds ahead of the next-fastest skater.
She was 12th in the 3,000 at the 2010 Vancouver Games, competing just a couple of months after cancer claimed her mother’s life. She never sufficiently grieved over the loss, and it finally caught up with her.
Anna Ringsred was second at 4:13.80.
”I really wanted it,” the 29-year-old skater said. ”I was so scared going into this. A lot was at stake. This was my last chance. I can’t believe it. I made it.”