Off the Cuff with Claiborne: Dr. Richard Lehman
For more than three decades, Dr. Richard Lehman has offered his expertise as an orthopedic surgeon to some of the top athletes in the world. He’s served as team physician for three National Hockey League franchises and has covered four Olympics and seven Track & Field World Championships. You may find him in a white coat more than a sport coat, but here, he shares insight into his personal style, some of his career highlights and his recently published book.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve dealt with during your career?
There are two things. One is telling an athlete that they can’t come back. The other is telling parents that their child isn’t going to succeed at their chosen sport at the collegiate or professional level. That conversation probably happens two or three times a week.
Do you think parents put too much pressure on kids to play?
I think it’s changed. Back in the day, parents used to let the kids just play, and those that were great were discovered because of their gifts. Today, I think parents see million-dollar contracts, and they think they can will their child into being that athlete if they provide the coaching and home environment. All they are doing is making their kid want to quit the sport earlier. The most important thing is that an athlete, whether it’s college or high school, loves playing and enjoys the experience.
Who are the greatest athletes you’ve worked with, and what made them so special?
I don’t know if anyone will ever come close to Jackie Joyner-Kersee’s record in the heptathlon. She also is a really great person and friend. Second, Serena Williams. You just don’t see that kind of talent and drive every day. Wayne Gretskey had to be one of the greatest ever. Roger Federer is an amazing athlete. I have the utmost respect for Aeneas Williams. He’s a guy who you would ask to babysit your kids in the hope that he’d make them into mini versions of himself.
Tell me about your book, How To R.A.I.S.E. An Athlete: The Formula by Renowned Orthopedic Surgeon to the Athletes.
I was approached about the book because there wasn’t anything out there about the dynamics of how to raise an athlete. I used my 30 years of experience to create a manual on how to do it and have your kids walk away from their athletic career, at whatever level that may be, having had a rewarding experience. I wish I had written it before I had three kids playing sports, not after. I learned I was a terrible tennis parent.
What are some of the responses you’ve gotten from people who’ve had the chance to read it?
The response has been great. Coaches have purchased a lot of copies, and I hope parents read it and reflect on how they can do better. My wife’s cousin read it and called me to say he wished he’d had the book before he pushed his son, a highly ranked swimmer, so hard that he gave up the sport.
You’re not from St. Louis. Why choose to make it home for you and your family?
I grew up in Miami, and my wife is from Palo Alto, California. We just felt an attraction to St. Louis like no other. People say it’s a great place to raise kids, but it’s more than that. The city took me in. My best friends are here. It’s in the middle of the country. Athletes from both coasts can get here easily; international athletes get here no problem. It’s got great baseball and hockey teams with history. It’s been an environment that’s been very conducive to do great things nationally and internationally.
Other than your white coat, what are the go-to items in your closet?
Just a pair of Lululemon sweatpants, t-shirt and jacket.
Your wife, Dr. Michele Koo, is a plastic surgeon. How much shop is talked at the dinner table?
If I have a non-orthopedic question, I’ll ask her because she’s really smart. But generally, we don’t talk shop, and that’s probably why we’re still married.
What’s it like not being the only doctor under the roof?
It’s tough being the dumbest person in your house on a consistent basis. That may sound funny, but it’s 100% true. My wife went to Stanford for undergrad and Wash U for medical school. She’s an nationally and internationally recognized cosmetic surgeon. Fortunately, our three kids got her smarts and my looks.
Favorite dining spots in St. Louis?
Annie Gunn’s, Ruth’s Chris, 801 Fish, and Katie’s Pizza and Pasta Osteria
Best place to travel?
There’s no question about the answer: Australia.
Beach or mountains?
Wine or another alcoholic beverage?
I drink bourbon and vodka 90% of the time, and beer the other 10%.
Salsa, ballroom or line dancing?
Probably line dancing.
Do you own a smoking jacket or ascot?
I don’t have either, but I’m not adverse to having a cigar now and again.
Where do you get your fashion tips and style?
My daughter Sydney. She berates the things I wear and then we’ll go shopping together.
What hobbies are you really good at, and what do you want to be better at?
I was a nationally ranked tennis player and went to college on a scholarship. I also played a little professionally, unsuccessfully. I love snow skiing and wish I was better at it. Growing up in Miami, it was a little hard to do.