Michigan Man with CMD Vies for US Rowing Team Spot

Come the 2012 Olympics in London, Michael Lehmann stands a reasonable chance of representing the United States as a vital member of the U.S. rowing team.

Lehmann got close to making the team this year as a coxswain (“KOK-sun”), taking second place in individual tryouts. His biggest handicaps were his age (23) and level of experience (five years) – not his congenital muscular dystrophy (CMD).

Most coxswains are 26 to 28 years old, Lehmann explains. The fellow who bested him for the slot had 11 years of experience.

Lehmann’s blue headband is part of a Nielsen-Kellerman “cox box” he uses to talk to his oarsmen and call cadence. The device has a microphone that transmits to speakers near each rower, so the coxswain doesn’t have to shout to be heard in the 65-foot shell.

The coxswain’s job is in the stern (rear) of a 65-foot-long racing boat known as a “shell,” directing the rest of the eight-man rowing team. The coxswain calls out a rhythmic cadence to the oarsmen, steers the shell, motivates the crew and critiques their stroke techniques as needed. In the absence of a coach, he becomes the coach.

Lehmann, who hails from Monroe, Mich., didn’t grow up yearning to be a coxswain. “I had no experience with rowing, but when I was going through freshman orientation [at Grand Valley State University, Allendale, Mich.], the team’s coach noticed how short I was, and recruited me on the spot,” he says.  Coxswains are typically of small stature.

Standing 5 feet 4 and tipping the scales at 123 pounds, Lehmann does contrast with the muscular six-footers who row the boat, although his skills are every bit as important.

Lehmann later transferred to Notre Dame University and spent four years at the school, developing both as a coxswain on the Notre Dame team and as an academic stand-out. When he graduated in May with a degree in computer engineering, two groups had their eyes on him.

Lehmann’s academic skills impressed Booz, Allen & Hamilton, a large U.S. government contractor in Washington, D.C., that offered him a job even before graduation.  His abilities as a coxswain attracted national team coaches who invited him to try out for the national rowing team over seven grueling weeks of daily exertion on the water at a training center in Oklahoma City.

In races known as regattas, teams try for the fastest time in covering 2,000 meters. Lehmann says a top team, skimming along at about 14 miles an hour, can cover that distance in less than six minutes.

The physical routine during the trials was especially tough for Lehmann because of his CMD. He spent a lot of time working out on stationary and elliptical bikes, and even did some rowing to keep himself trim and toned. He doesn’t use any assistive devices for getting around, although walking is challenging for him, a problem that’s been exacerbated by a hip replacement this August.

Lehmann is now a technology consultant for Booz, Allen & Hamilton in D.C., but the company has already told him he can have time off next summer to try out for the Olympic team.

His work for the firm, which includes writing computer programs, is “awesome” he says, but he still thinks constantly of those long boats. This spring he plans to coach rowing for a local high school team and has ambitions to coach at as high a level as possible — maybe even the nationals.

Having Olympian status certainly wouldn’t hurt his chances.

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