Except in races, Shani Davis declines to toe the line


Gary D’Amato

 |  Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Shani Davis is one of the greatest long-track speedskaters in history, a man who dominated two races for a decade, set world records, won four Olympic medals and became the all-time World Cup points leader.

To his fellow skaters, he is an icon, an inspiration, a mentor, a friend.

“He’s a legend. It’s an honor to race against him,” said Joey Mantia, who last month edged Davis at the U.S. Olympic trials in the 1,000 meters, the race in which Davis won Olympic gold in 2006 and repeated in 2010.

“I looked up to Shani when I was little,” said three-time Olympian Brian Hansen. “When I was at the club level Shani was making his World Cup debut. Being able to skate with him and compete with him has been really meaningful for me because he was such a skating idol to me growing up.”

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All Davis ever wanted to do was skate fast. It was his motivation as a kid growing up in Chicago, the only African-American in a lily-white sport. It is his motivation today as a 35-year-old skating in his fourth consecutive Olympic Games (he also made the U.S. short-track team in 2002 but did not compete).

“I still love the sport of speedskating, and I always find a challenge in competing and trying to be the best I can be,” Davis said. “As long as I have that, age doesn’t mean a thing.”

In his environment, on 400-meter ovals throughout North America, Europe and Asia, there is nothing complicated about Davis. Be the best I can be. People talk about his work ethic in reverent tones. He has held onto an almost childlike enthusiasm for his sport at an age when most speedskaters have long since retired.

When the clap skates come off, however, Davis is one of the most complex Olympians of our time. He has had a tenuous relationship with U.S. Speedskating and has feuded with the powers that be in his sport. He squabbled publicly with teammate Chad Hedrick during the 2006 Winter Games. His general distrust of the media has been costly from a public relations standpoint, but he cares not.

Through it all, like him or not, he’s been his own man, refusing to toe the line except at the start of his races. There is much to be admired about the way he has stuck to his principles and risen to the top of the sport his way.

In the weeks leading up to the Pyeongchang Games, at World Cup No. 4 in Salt Lake City and at the U.S. Olympic trials, he was engaging and accessible, bantering with reporters who have covered him for years, at times introspective, even nostalgic.

And then he tweeted.

Angry at the method used by the U.S. Olympic team to select the flag bearer for the opening ceremony, Davis blasted the process. In a vote among team representatives from each of the eight Winter Games federation, Davis and luge athlete Erin Hamlin tied, 4-4. A coin toss, the U.S. Olympic Committee’s predetermined (if imperfect) way to break a tie, was employed. Hamlin won.

Davis went off.

“I am an American and when I won the 1000m in 2010 I became the first American to 2-peat in that event. @TeamUSA dishonorably tossed a coin to decide its 2018 flag bearer, No problem. I can wait until 2022. #BlackHistoryMonth2018 #Pyeongchang2018.”

The tweet struck many as sour grapes. Davis had a right to be disappointed; the problem was the way he expressed that disappointment, including the use of hashtags for Black History Month and the Olympics in an apparent effort to create a viral controversy.

It should be noted that Hamlin, 31, is as deserving of the honor as is Davis. She is a four-time Olympian and four years ago became the first female American singles luger to medal in the Winter Games.

The Pyeongchang Games should have been a celebration of what Davis has meant to speedskating and to the USA as a great champion. Instead, he was a no-show at U.S. Speedskating’s pre-Games news conference and undoubtedly will have his guard up in post-race interviews. He had to know there would be backlash to his tweet.

Unfortunately, he has been here before. He has had a me-against-the-world mentality going back to his early days in the sport, when he was shunned by the speedskating community, he says, because of the color of his skin. Every slight along the way was used as motivation.

His legacy on the ice is secure. It will be a long time before we see another Shani Davis, if ever.

Asked what Davis meant to the sport in America, U.S. Speedskating high-performance director Guy Thibault said, “I mean, it’s like asking what Jeremy Wotherspoon means for the sport in Canada. The guy has been a superstar in more than one event. To stay there for so long is impressive, especially with the young kids and the new Dutch skaters. It’s getting tougher and tougher, but somehow the guy keeps doing it 12 years later.”

Davis’ times are not quite what they once were, though he wrote in a blog for teamusa.org that his recent 10-day training camp in Inzell, Germany — while the rest of the U.S. team (except Heather Bergsma) was training in Milwaukee — went well.

“The training was amazing and every day I felt more and more like myself,” he wrote. “This skating that I’ve wanted to feel all season was starting to peek its little head out and I took advantage of building myself up again.”

He’ll race in the 1,500 meters on Tuesday and the 1,000 on Feb. 23.

Could he win a medal?

“Who knows?” Thibault said. “I wouldn’t count him out. Shani is there when it counts.”

And sometimes, when it counts, he is not.


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