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Superior swim coach George Lehman watches his swimmers during a meet at SHS in the fall. (Jed Carlson/jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

Diagnosis has Superior swim coach considering his future

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By Rick Weegman

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George Lehman first noticed the tremors in his hands two years ago.

A doctor’s visit to St. Luke’s hospital soon revealed the reason for the uncontrollable shaking: Parkinson’s disease.

Now Lehman, Superior’s boys and girls swim coach for the past decade and a science teacher at the high school, must decide if the degenerative central nervous system condition will take away his livelihood and passion or if he can control the affliction with prescribed medication.

“I have to look at the students and see if I’m pulling my share of the load, and that concerns me,” he said at a recent practice. “The medicines sometimes have an effect of making me a little foggy, and I’m trying to control that.

“Should I try to stick it out another year or two? I have to make a decision fairly soon.”

Superior activities director Ray Kosey says no decision has been made about the 61-year-old Lehman’s future in the classroom or at the pool, though he knows the inevitable result.

“Knowing George, he’s the kind of person I know that when he can’t live up to the expectations that he’s set for himself, he will come to us and say it’s time to move on,” Kosey said. “When it finally does come to the point that he no longer can do the job to the expectations of him and the school district, it will be a tough void for us to fill.”

Lehman’s first objective, however, is to guide the Spartans at this weekend’s Wisconsin Sectional 1 boys swimming and diving meet in Chippewa Falls.

His swimmers notice the shaking but say Lehman has maintained a high level of coaching and still motivates them.

“It’s gotten worse, but he’s done a good job managing it and is still doing a good job coaching,” sophomore freestyle specialist Logan Kittelson said. “He’s very consistent and does a good job. He pushes us more than any other coach I’ve had. He doesn’t take it too seriously — he knows when to keep it serious and when to lighten up.”

Senior Andrew Eisenmann, who went to the state meet in the 100 freestyle last year, had Lehman as a geology teacher last fall and says the venerable coach always provides words of encouragement. The passion that Lehman displays for the sport would be difficult to replace, Eisenmann says.

“I think he’s a great coach,” he said. “It would be very sad (if he stepped down) because it’s tough to find people who really appreciate and like the sport.”

Lehman’s students and swimmers have been very supportive, Kosey says.

“I give our students a lot of credit that they understand what he’s trying to go through,” Kosey said. “It’s a good learning experience for our kids about how diseases can affect people and how you need to adjust and tolerate people. I know George isn’t meaning to use it as a lesson, but it’s something our athletes are handling well.”

Lehman, Superior a perfect fit

A love of water made the Northland a perfect fit for Lehman.

Born in Hibbing, Lehman attended school in the Iron Range city until moving to Superior before his senior year when his father, William, took a new job with the railroad. Lehman was a state competitor in swimming and in pole vault at Superior and then swam at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, when that school still had a team.

Lehman earned a master’s degree in geology at the University of Minnesota Duluth and moved to Denver, the Upper Peninsula and other stops in between before heading back to UWS to receive a teaching certificate.

Along the way, he married the former Lynn Thatcher, a fellow 1970 Superior graduate whom he didn’t know in high school but met while water-skiing with her brother on Lake Nebagamon. They have two sons: Vance, a radiologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and Bryce, a lawyer in the Kenosha, Wis., area.

Lehman took his first teaching job in Racine, Wis., where he taught science and was the swim coach. When he returned to Superior to teach advanced physics, geology and engineering in 1999, however, he didn’t add swim coach duties right away. He spent about four seasons coaching the boys and girls track and field teams and later helped out as a volunteer and assistant swim coach. He enjoyed both disciplines.

“What I love about track and swimming is that you’re competing against a watch or a tape measure and, generally, people can have a gentlemanly relationship with their adversaries,” said Lehman, who still coaches Superior’s pole vaulters. “If you’re a backstroker, you’ve got more in common with your competition than you do with your teammates because you’re working on the same goals.”

He coached several quality teams, with the Spartans winning seven Lake Superior Conference girls titles in the past decade.

He also kept active canoeing, boating and even water-skiing. So when his hands began involuntarily shaking, he knew there was a problem.

“I had a lot of preparation because it was coming on gradually and I knew there was something wrong,” he said. “There were several possibilities for what was causing the shake and several are much worse than being diagnosed with Parkinson’s.”

Exercise need may influence choice

The onset of Parkinson’s, named for a 19th-century English doctor who worked with palsy patients, is the result of the death of dopamine-generating brain cells. The cause is unknown.

“By the time you are diagnosed, you’ve lost about 80 to 85 percent of the cells that are responsible for creating the dopamine,” Lehman said.

Since being diagnosed, Lehman said the shaking has become worse but mainly affects just one side of his body. It also diminishes when he’s actively working with his hands. Other side-effects include dry eyes and an inability to track words across lines in a book. He takes the medication trihexyphenidyl, but he often goes without it in order to prevent his body from becoming resistant to the drug.

“I wanted to put that off as long as I could,” he said about the medicine.

He’s also put off receiving electrical stimulation of the brain, possibly a helpful procedure, believing that would hinder his love of water.

For Lehman, who also has battled diabetes for 27 years — including half that time as insulin-dependent — the decision may come down to what’s best for his health. Exercising is key to preventing Parkinson’s progression, and teaching and coaching limits the amount of exercise Lehman gets on a daily basis.

“One reason I’m evaluating whether I can keep doing what I’m doing is to see if I can arrange it to make it a healthy atmosphere for me to get enough exercise. I’m not getting that much right now,” he said.

No matter his ultimate decision, Lehman is pleased with the path his life has taken ever since relocating to Superior.

“We all have a limited time on Earth and I’m happy with what’s gone on in my life,” he said. “I have a wonderful family and good friends.” 

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