My name is Mike Lehmann and I am the head coach of the Notre Dame Men’s Rowing Team. I was born with an undiagnosed neuromuscular disorder. Sure, this made things a bit harder for me, and I was always the smallest, but it never slowed me down - I was still trying to beat everyone else in soccer and basketball as a kid. My entire childhood was spent going to long doctor appointments each month, with neurologists trying to figure out what my condition was and if it was stable. Scoliosis was a side-effect of the disorder and it was getting worse. I grew up wearing back braces every day to try and stop the scoliosis. When I was in seventh grade, sports all of a sudden became more difficult. Even running a lap down the court resulted in extreme pain. A year later, I was diagnosed with perthes, which is a disease that causes the bone cells in your hip to die. The only surgery available was a temporary fix to rebuild my hip with bone from other parts of my body and hold it together with a few screws. One of the more devastating phrases I have ever been told was “you need to stop playing sports.” The recovery from this surgery was the most painful thing I have ever gone through; spending 6 weeks not able to get out of bed, a month in a wheelchair, and a full year of crutches following that. I was convinced that my days of competitive sports were done. To add to it, a year after recovering from my hip surgery, my scoliosis progressed enough to need a full spinal fusion. There are titanium rods holding my body up from my butt to my neck. When I got to college, I was looking to satisfy my love of sports and walked onto the rowing team as a coxswain. I was not doing my body any harm and I could be very competitive, so it was the perfect fit. That was going very well but during my junior year, my hip started hurting just walking around Notre Dame. Eventually it got to the point where I couldn’t walk anymore. Three weeks before my senior year started, my doctors decided to do an emergency full-hip replacement on the hip they had worked on a few years before. This was inevitably going to interrupt the start of my senior year, but I was committed to not let it slow me down. I had to stay out of the boat for the first month of our season, which was very tough to do; I was a senior captain on the team watching from the sidelines. A few weeks before our big race of the fall - the Head of the Charles - I was cleared to compete. There was one caveat to that, I still could not bend my hip past 90 degrees. The guys in my boat had to pick me up and set me in the shell in a way that didn’t let that happen. I could not climb into the boat like usual but once I was in there, it was game time. I was so excited to be competing again.
I had a coach in college who said “people like you fight harder because you have been through some shit and you have to push through it.” I never want to be known as the guy with the disability; I want to be known as the guy who does whatever he wants despite any setbacks that may come along. I’m stronger because I have to be; there is really no other option.