CHAMPAIGN — After years of trying, Blake Lehmann had finally dunked a basketball on the hoop in his family's driveway.
Problem was, no one saw it.
So the then-high school sophomore fetched a neighbor — a highly skeptical neighbor, he says — and proceeded to throw one down again.
"So I've got a witness," he said.
Now a senior, Lehmann recently recounted that story with great satisfaction. Long before he was a two-time state swimming medalist and the most recent addition to Champaign Central's record board at Unit 4 Pool, the 2012 News-Gazette All-Area Swimmer of the Year was — and remains — a basketball fanatic.
"I love watching swimming, but if I had to decide between watching the two, it probably would be basketball," the Maroons freestyle sprinter said.
The fact that Lehmann wasn't exactly the next Verdell Jones III in Central's pantheon of hardwood heroes never slackened his affection for the sport.
From neighborhood pickup games with South Side Elementary School buddies to Champaign Park District league contests to what proved to be the high point of his organized basketball career — membership on the Edison Middle School seventh-grade team — Lehmann always was an enthusiastic participant.
But enthusiasm, he came to realize, would only take him so far.
"I was never really an all-star kid," he said. "I was more (about) rebounds. Never a point scorer."
Enter the swim ambassador of the Lehmann family.
With her kid brother in his first year at Central and the winter sports calendar approaching, then-Maroons junior Courtney Lehmann could sense that Blake was wavering between trying out for basketball or swimming.
Although her younger sibling was not yet a year-round club swimmer like Courtney, she foresaw a level of success for Blake that probably wasn't reachable in basketball.
Then Courtney sealed the deal with this carrot on a stick: "My sister told me that I could be on a state relay as a freshman," Blake recalled. "I always wanted to go to state. So I just took a leap of faith, and I'm glad I took it."
Forgive the Central coaching staff if it did not initially share Courtney's confidence.
Unlike some classmates like fellow state medalist-to-be Sam Stewart, Blake entered the Maroons' swimming program with no reputation in the sport. Still, then-Maroons head coach Matt Hopkins decided to give Lehmann a shot in one event in the team's first big meet of the 2008-09 season. The rookie finished the 50-yard freestyle in 25 seconds — certainly a good time for a varsity newcomer with Lehmann's limited background but not a clocking that would have ranked in the top 12 in any major meet on Central's schedule.
"So there was a really good shot he wasn't going to swim varsity (that year)," Hopkins said.
But as the season wore on, Lehmann continued to drop time. And as a freestyle sprinter, there were other opportunities to get into the lineup via relays.
By the time the Maroons headed to state that February, Courtney Lehmann had been proven right. Central qualified in the 200 and 400 freestyle relays. And the kid brother was a member of both.
Blake Lehmann returned to state as a sophomore, but not as a competitor. At the 2010 sectional at Unit 4 Pool, he experienced the cruel side of the sport. Times two.
First, Lehmann missed qualifying for state in the 50 freestyle by six-hundredths of a second. Then, after the Maroons seemingly had advanced to state in the 200 freestyle relay, the performance was disqualified. The starter and head referee ruled Lehmann had committed a false start.
Hopkins was determined to make sure those disappointments would not be Lehmann's last memories of what was otherwise a major season of progress for the young swimmer. When Stewart qualified for state in two individual events, Hopkins insisted that Lehmann come along, too, as a spectator.
"Because we knew Blake was capable of making it to state (in an individual event) and he needed to see what it was like," Hopkins said. "I think it fueled him to start training more than just high school (season)."
When the next state meet took place, Lehmann indeed was back in the pool as a qualifier in three events: the 50 and 100 freestyles as well as the 200 medley relay.
On the surface, Lehmann again seemingly was subjected to a gut-wrenching experience. In the preliminaries of the 50 free, the then-junior and Peoria Notre Dames Tyler Neaveill tied for 12th place, forcing a swim-off for the final spot in the consolation finals.
This time, Lehmann was denied a state medal by the margin of 0.04 second. And yet, you would never know that it was Neaveill who won the swim-off. After trimming 0.21 second off his prelim time and swimming what was then the fourth-fastest 50 free time in Central history — 21.35 — Lehmann went into celebratory mode.
"He had this huge smile on his face and he pumped his fist and was so excited that I don't think it even occurred to him that he'd lost," Hopkins said.
It was then, the Maroons coach knew for sure, that Lehmann had truly bought into what Hopkins and the rest of the Central staff had preached.
"We worked a lot with Blake about not worrying about what place you get and concentrating on your time and what things can you do to go faster," Hopkins said. "And when he touched (the touch pad) in that swim-off, I think all he saw was the time."
Season to remember
Lehmann had plenty of reasons to smile and pump his fists this season.
— He was a two-time individual champion in the Bloomington Invitational, Big 12 Conference and IHSA Centennial Sectional meets.
— He broke a 22-year-old Big 12 meet record in the 50 freestyle by finishing in 21.48 seconds.
— Although it was an unofficial school record, he swam under 21 seconds for the first time as the anchor of Central's 200 freestyle relay at sectionals. Given a running start off the blocks, Lehmann blazed through his 50-yard leg in 20.47 seconds.
— He medaled for the first time at state, finishing third in his signature event — the 50 free — and 10th in the 100 free.
"Every time he swims, he wants to do his best," Central co-head coach Ben Trupin said. "He's really good at focusing right before the race. It's like there's nothing else but swimming fast."
Such tunnel vision was never more evident than in Lehmann's final 50 freestyle swim as a Maroon. And it produced the highlight in a season of highlights for the senior.
First, some background.
From the time Lehmann joined the Central swim program, one number in particular on the school's record board caught and held his attention.
It was 21.00 — the number of seconds five-time state champion Dan Trupin swam the 50 free in 2001. Others might have considered it an untouchable school record but not a certain precocious Maroons freshman.
"One day, Sam and I were looking at the board, at that 21.00, and I said, 'I could beat that,' " Lehmann said.
A veteran teammate shared Lehmann's confidence, although Mike Lacine's timetable differed.
"Mike said I could probably beat that — junior or senior year," Lehmann recalled. "Junior or senior year? I was thinking (sophomore) year. But, of course, he was right.
"I'm just glad he put that into my mind. I guess I've always been working for that."
The payoff for those labors came Feb. 25 at Evanston High School's pool. In the championship finals of the 50 free, Lehmann touched in 21 seconds even — tying Trupin's record in his final opportunity.
"It was pretty awesome," Lehmann said. "Words couldn't even describe what was going through my head."
Actually, he admits to being a bit confused at that moment about one thing.
"I didn't realize that if you tie the record, you could get up on the board," Lehmann said.
His coaches and teammates quickly set him straight on school record board protocol, where room is made for additional names in the event of ties.
Said Lehmann: "They were all yelling, 'You're on the board; You're on the board, Blake!' "
The next lap
In a matter of months, he'll be on to college.
Lehmann had swimming-related options. Texas Christian pursued him as a preferred walk-on. Iowa recruited him, too, but Lehmann was wary of combining the academic demands of a Big Ten school with a time-consuming sport.
Instead, he's headed to a school — and a swimming program — with at least one highly familiar face. In the fall, Lehmann will join Courtney, a three-year member of the DePauw University women's swimming team, at the Greencastle, Ind., school.
"I think it's really exciting," Blake said. "Me and her, we always have good times so I'm looking forward to it."
His past and present Central coaches are looking forward, too, to seeing what Lehmann might accomplish at the next level. Given his comparatively limited background in the sport, they say his true potential remains untapped.
"Blake has only trained year around over the previous two years, and in that span he has made significant drops in time," Ben Trupin said. "Based on his previous responses to training, it is only logical that he will continue to improve.
"He has not plateaued in swimming. He doesn't even know what a plateau is."
Making a splash
Blake Lehmann continued Champaign Central’s strong showing in our All-Area Boys’ Swimmer/Diver of the Year selections. The list of winners:
YEAR NAME, SCHOOL
2012 Blake Lehmann, Champaign Central
2011 Kegan Skelton, Centennial
2010 Kegan Skelton, Centennial
2009 Mike Lacine, Champaign Central
2008 Mike Lacine, Champaign Central
2007 Chester Dols, Urbana
2006 Tyler McGill, Champaign Central
2005 Tyler McGill, Champaign Central
Getting to know ... Blake Lehmann
Season highlight: Swimming the fastest split time in Central history in the 200 free relay (20.47)
Career highlight: Tying Dan Trupin’s 50 free school record (21.00) and placing third in the state meet
Favorite college athlete: Pierre Jackson (Baylor point guard)
Favorite entertainer: Drake
Favorite class: Physics; Mr. Plattner is the best!
Favorite movie: “Lord of the Rings” trilogy
Favorite store: I don’t shop, but when I do, the Nike Outlet store.
Favorite restaurant: Buffalo Wild Wings; I’ve grown very fond of that place.
Favorite car: A black Lamborghini
My first job was ... a day camp counselor at Indian Acres.
Plans for college: Going to DePauw University, majoring in business
In five years, I will be ... working at Nike’s corporate headquarters.
All-Area Honorable Mention
NAME SCHOOL YEAR
Brock Bales Sullivan Jr.
Garrett Barnard Champaign Central Jr.
Brandon Bell Champaign Central Fr.
Ashi Bhatt Champaign Central So.
Jon Delzell Danville Jr.
Blas Garcia-Canga Centennial Sr.
Joey Faullin Champaign Central Sr.
Erik Heine Urbana So.
Evan Miller Champaign Central So.
Thomas Mueller Centennial Sr.
Gabe Omo-Osagie Centennial Sr.
Trent Reeve Centennial Sr.
Heath Rogers Centennial So.
Corbin Rosset Urbana Jr.
John Seyler Urbana Sr.
Sam Stewart Champaign Central Sr.
Luis Tian Centennial Sr.
Scott Wierschem Centennial Fr.
Jordan Young Centennial Jr.