Kearns • Jeff Klaiber leaned back onto the ice at the Utah Olympic Oval a few feet away from the podium and proudly took photos of his protege, who had just stolen the show.
Standing there with a smile tattooed to his face and his arms around his American teammates was 16-year-old Emery Lehman, the youngest competitor at this week’s U.S. Long-Track Speedskating Championships. But age or inexperience didn’t stop him from wrangling the spotlight in the first day of the five-day event as the youngster won the men’s 5,000-meter race, setting a personal best (6:27.06) in his bread-and-butter race.
“I thought he had a chance at the top three,” said Klaiber, a two-time Olympic long-track speedskater who has coached Lehman for the last three years. “It’s always a crapshoot on race day. Some people rise up, and some people drop.”
The kid from Oak Park, Ill., rose up.
He defeated second-place and 2010 Olympic silver medalist Jonathan Kuck (6:27.14) by just .08 seconds and third-place Patrick Meek (6:30.39) by more than three seconds.
“I’m enjoying it while I can,” said a bashful Lehman. “I’m not going to be able to set a personal [best] every time.”
Competing in the seventh of eighth heats in the men’s 5,000-meter race Thursday morning, Lehman was pushed by Kuck as the pair were neck and neck for much of the race. But the 16-year-old took a few extra long strides and crossed the finish line having capped the best race of his young career.
“Before the race, I wasn’t too confident that I could do a fast race because of all the other times, but I just keep my mental focus on what I need to work on,” he said.
Having competed at two World Cups already this season, Lehman said this week’s national championships are just another platform to prove himself against the best long-trackers in the country.
But Klaiber attributes the steady ascent through the ranks to Lehman’s attitude.
“He’s kind of a throwback … he’s a very, very affable, even-tempered young man,” the coach explained. “He just enjoys what he’s doing.”
In the women’s 3,000-meter race, it was Jilleanne Rookard who benefited from racing in the final heat of the early-morning race to get a jumpstart on her teammates in pursuit of a national championship.
A previous U.S. national all-around champion, Rookard (4:11.88) came in first ahead of second-place Maria Lamb (4:12.61) and third-place Petra Acker (4:13.94).
“I still get just as nervous competing at nationals,” she said. “I think I get even more nervous than maybe a World Cup because it is a qualifying event and it kind of sets the stage for the rest of the season. There’s a lot at stake.”
The U.S. national sprint champion in the men’s and women’s categories will be decided following the races on Saturday. The sprint champion is decided from points earned from two 500-meter races and one 1,000-meter race.
The U.S. national all-around champion will be decided Monday afternoon. On the women’s side, combined points are taken from a 500-meter race along with a 1,500-meter, 3,000-meter and 5,000-meter race. For the men, combined points come from a 500-meter race, along with the 1,500-meter, 5,000-meter and 10,000-meter race.
Winter World Cup and World sprint teams will be announced for the U.S. long-track program following the final races on Monday.
A closer look
O U.S. Long-Track Speedskating Championships at Utah Olympic Oval, Kearns
Women’s 3,000 meters
1. Jilleanne Rookard: 4:11.88
2. Maria Lamb: 4:12.61
3. Petra Acker: 4:13.94
1. Emery Lehman: 6:27.06
2. Jonathan Kuck: 6:27.14
3. Patrick Meek: 6:30.39
9 a.m. • Women’s 500, heat No. 1
9:50 a.m. • Men’s 500, heat No. 1
11 a.m. • Women’s 500, heat No. 2
11:45 a.m. • Men’s 500, heat No. 2