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Best U.S. speedskater goes it alone

(This story appeared in the Feb. 8, 2010, issue of Sports Illustrated.)

A new three-letter code deserves a place among the ones likely to grace the leader board at the Olympic speedskating oval in Vancouver. To USA, NED, CAN, NOR, GER and KOR we might add TSD, for Team Shani Davis. TSD's head of state is on the U.S. team but not of it. At his request U.S. Speedskating doesn't post his bio on its website. He passes up financial support from the U.S. federation and instead finds his own sponsors; TSD even had a brief diplomatic spat with SCN, Stephen Colbert Nation, whose donations had closed a six-figure sponsorship gap to fund Team USA for these Games -- though that's another story.

As speedskating approaches its quadrennial reckoning, the story is this: Just as no skater since Eric Heiden has commanded the 1,000 and 1,500 meters the way Davis does now, no American Olympian has ever stood more apart from his sport's establishment and conventions. Davis consults with at least six coaches but decides on training routines himself. He lives in Chicago but vagabonds between rinks in Salt Lake City and Milwaukee with the help of sponsorship funds provided by three Dutch companies, as well as Nike. He kites off to train in a different discipline, short track, during breaks in his long-track schedule. He had an agent -- the same guy who does well by a certain multiple-gold-medal-winning American swimmer -- but parted ways with him last year, leaving his mom, Cherie, to supervise matters off the ice. And TSD has chosen not to join USA to skate the team pursuit in Vancouver, even though doing so would give Davis a shot at a third gold medal. Instead he'll take on an ambitious schedule, skating four individual events at distances ranging from 500 to 5,000 meters.

Figuratively and literally, Davis, 27, is master of the closed loop. "He has no coach, no training program, no team behind him," says his friend Apolo Anton Ohno, the U.S. short-track gold medalist. "He's taking on guys with Tour de France budgets going for one or two races. If he had the right support group he could medal in every race."

If anything explains the solitude Davis has chosen, it would be the shroud of Turin. Four years ago Davis skated to gold in the 1,000 and silver in the 1,500. But a feud with U.S. rival Chad Hedrick went public and ruined the moment, snuffing out the endorsement bonanza that should have been his as the first black Winter Olympian to win individual gold. The sniping began when Hedrick ripped Davis for failing to join him in the team pursuit. Even though Davis never intended to take part, the U.S. team had, unbeknownst to him, submitted his name as a possible participant, and after Hedrick's broadside U.S. officials never clarified that Davis couldn't have let anyone down because he had never formally stepped up. All of which left Davis hanging, a piñata for a mostly uncomprehending press corps. "[The team pursuit] happened right in the middle of the [individual] competition," says one of Davis's advisers, former Olympic champion Bart Veldkamp of the Netherlands. "I would have made the same decision. The media wanted a war, and nobody deserves that, especially athletes who go four years without anybody talking to them."

Last fall Davis gave every indication he would skate the pursuit in Vancouver. At the U.S. World Cup trials in October he said he didn't want "to water down the potency of my skating [in the Olympics]" by entering too many individual events, and said the team pursuit "could be the cherry on top of my sundae." The following month, he joined Hedrick and Trevor Marsicano to tie the powerful Dutch for the pursuit gold at a World Cup meet in Holland.

But after Christmas came word -- from U.S. Speedskating, with no further explanation -- that Davis would pass up the team pursuit and instead skate all five individual events. Several weeks after that he chose to give the 10,000 a miss. He will be heavily favored in the 1,000 and the 1,500 but hard-pressed to win a medal in the others. Davis dominated the middle distances through the World Cup season, going 4 for 4 in the 1,000 and 4 for 5 in the 1,500, setting five track records and one world mark. But this season he is ranked 16th in the 500 and 10th in the 5,000. He is probably too slow off the start to place in the former, and the latter remains the province of the Netherlands' Sven Kramer, the 23-year-old world-record holder, whose mastery of the distance events Davis has said "turned me into a sprinter."

But by skating four races, Davis is staking a claim. In an ever more specialized sport, in which the 1,500 is a hybrid no-man's event, he's a throwback all-rounder. Fold in his devotion to short track and he can make the case that he's the most versatile skater since Heiden.

None of Davis's go-it-alone-isms turns more heads than his choice to train without a primary coach. "[It] isn't the right thing," concedes one of his longtime coaches, Wisconsin-based Bob Fenn. "Especially at this level, where there's a fine tooth between victory and defeat."

Veldkamp is more understanding. "If you know yourself, you know what you need," he says. "But you have to have self-discipline and confidence. He's the exception. He races himself, not others. If he fails, his attitude is, 'Hey, I tried it,' with a smile. That's why he's able to skate those [fast] times. That and his short-track pedigree, which nets him decisive seconds on long-track turns."

"It's always amazed me how he does what he does without a coach," adds Heiden, now the U.S. team's physician. "To see Shani put all the puzzle pieces together, to train and deal with all the commotion that goes with being really successful, I scratch my head."

Heiden is hardly alone in his wonder. "[Shani is] not so much misunderstood," says Ohno. "More like not understood."

Shani and Cherie Davis come by their iconoclasm honestly. A single mom, Cherie found a refuge for her active toddler son at the Rainbow Roller Rink a few blocks from their home on Chicago's South Side. One day at her job as a legal secretary she prepared a speedskating document for her boss, a federation official, which offered a glimpse into the competitive world awaiting her son, by now six. Within two months of putting on skates Shani was entering regional competitions, so he and his mother moved to the North Side to be near an ice rink in Evanston. Rising through the ranks, he heard both "Oreo" from South Siders and "boy" from a young white rival in Lake Placid, N.Y., where Shani attended a residency training program when he was a teenager.

Cherie quickly took to the role of advocate and protector. In 2005, after U.S. speedskater Jennifer Rodriguez congratulated Shani for his World All-Around Championship, she earned a dressing-down from Cherie that left the '02 Olympic bronze medalist baffled. The Davises' row with the U.S. team goes back a decade and stems from quarrels over fines, sponsor recognition and financial support. "We would take things into our own hands and try to make the ideal situation for myself," Davis told the Chicago Tribune Magazine in '05, speaking of himself and his mother. "Sometimes that hurt me more than it helped. But in the long run it made me the strong person I am today."

Members of the speedskating community have tried to separate Shani from some of the maternal passion of Cherie, the woman who once said, "If it wasn't for me, my son would be in the streets selling drugs." But Shani didn't help his case with terse replies to NBC's Melissa Stark after winning gold in the 1,000 in Turin. He later said he believed Stark showed more interest in Hedrick's earlier gold in the 5,000 and turned attention to him only after his victory.

With golds from Davis, Hedrick and Joey Cheek (in the 500) four years ago, U.S. Speedskating should have basked in an Olympics to recall the days of Heiden and Bonnie Blair. Instead the fortnight degenerated into opéra bouffe. "It's a shame because a team like that doesn't come around every four years," says Heiden. "It's a big issue for Shani, for Chad, for the USOC and for U.S. Speedskating [that the drama] not repeat itself."

It shouldn't. Hedrick, the Texan once dubbed the Paris Hilton of speedskating by the Dutch press for his hard-partying ways, has since embraced Christianity and is married with a baby daughter. When Davis withheld his name from U.S. Speedskating's team-pursuit pool, Hedrick -- who in Turin hadn't discouraged comparisons of himself with Heiden -- held his tongue, even ceding his spot in the 10,000 when Davis looked like he wanted to skate that fifth individual distance.

As for Davis, in October he told the AP, "If it's negative, it's not good. I feel like in Torino it was really negative, and it shouldn't have been that way." That may explain his decision to keep his distance the last four years from a North American press corps that, as he put it in 2006, tends to "highlight everyone's belch and fart."

Nothing punctures a bubble more effectively than irony and satire, the stock in trade of The Colbert Report. Letting comedy into the sport is the price U.S. Speedskating paid to make up the shortfall after its primary sponsor, the Dutch bank DSB, collapsed last fall. (Speaking of irony: Before its collapse DSB also sponsored Team Shani Davis in a separate deal.)

After Christmas, Davis accepted Colbert's on-air challenge to a race-off, a 500-meter showdown that ended with a Davis victory (he gave Colbert a 13-minute head start) and a handshake. But it was a long road to that moment of détente. Following morning training at the World Cup event in Calgary on Dec. 3, Shi Davidi of the Canadian Press sidled up to Davis. After getting rebuffed on several topics -- Davis's relationship with the U.S. federation ("That's a trap") and his friendship with Canadian skater Denny Morrison ("I don't want to talk about that") -- Davidi brought up Colbert.

"He's a jerk," Davis said, "and you can put that in the paper."

At that Davis took off, leaving his lone utterance to the North American media for the World Cup season to that point a slur against the lead sponsor of the national team in whose colors he skates.

The next day Hedrick beat Davis in the 1,500 meters by .05 of a second. It was Davis's first and only middle-distance loss all season -- the toll of a punctured bubble.

Then, after a two-day resumption of radio silence, Davis ripped off a track record to win the 1,000. The lesson: Stay in the bubble. "When he doesn't win, he has nobody else to blame," says Morrison, who spent two years training with Davis in Calgary. "I can blame a physio or a massage therapist. He takes it on himself. And that makes him so motivated to fix it."

For answers to the most insistent questions of the past few months -- What was your beef with Colbert? and Why abandon the team pursuit after all but pledging to skate it? -- those outside the bubble are left to speculate. (Davis declined SI's interview requests.) But answers may lie with the shroud of Turin. During a February 2006 broadcast Colbert said, "Sorry, Mr. Davis, but that team pursuit you skipped was Mr. Hedrick's shot at five medals. I guess your teammate just wasn't as important as your petty, trivial, individual goal of becoming the first black person of any nationality to win a gold medal in the Winter Olympics." (One might say Colbert was expressing solidarity with TSD. But it's easy to see how one might take offense if, that is, one were not in on the joke.)

As for the team pursuit, to contest it in Vancouver would have ensured the dredging up of an episode that TSD wants to leave behind. Says U.S. national sprint coach Ryan Shimabukuro, who has lent Davis a technical eye since 2006, "This time around one of his motivations is to enjoy the whole Olympic experience."

There may be other explanations, ones Davis prefers to keep to himself. Perhaps, to use Ohno's formulation, rather than to misunderstand it's left to us simply to not understand. But one thing is clearly understood: Four times Davis will step out on the ice with a medal in the balance. And each time he'll do so alone.

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