Shani Davis astonished no one with the first of what's likely to be two gold medals at these Olympics, which he claimed with a blistering final lap in Wednesday's 1,000 meters.
More surprising -- and every bit as intriguing -- was the identity of the guy next to him on the podium: Chad Hedrick, Davis' nemesis from the Turin Olympics four years ago.
Hedrick, who won the bronze, is as different from Davis as Chicago is from Texas. At the 2006 Winter Games they sniped publicly, ruining what should have been a sustained celebration of the five medals won between them.
Time may not have entirely repaired their relationship. According to The New York Times Magazine, last November Hedrick proposed to Davis that they adopt the appearance that all was kumbaya between them, the better to match the public's mood in the run-up to the Olympics. Hedrick didn't speak to the magazine to confirm or deny the account, but apparently Davis was so offended by the proposal's phoniness that their breach threatened to open up anew.
But when they jointly hoisted an American flag at the Richmond Olympic Oval last night, the moment didn't look at all manufactured. As Davis said, "Chad grabbed a flag and said, 'Let's do it.'" And they did it.
Afterward Hedrick called their differences "old news." This time, he said, "Nobody's wondering who wants to play with who."
Hedrick has followed a winding road since Turin. He didn't skate for eight months after returning to the U.S., but he continued to uphold his reputation as the self-promoting, hard-partying "Paris Hilton of speedskating," as one Dutch journalist called him. He went, he says, "to ground zero" as a skater before plumbing his motivation and deciding that he did indeed want to compete in one more Olympics.
Then his life took another turn. In 2008 he married Lynsey Adams, a hometown gal from Spring, Texas. Last March they welcomed a daughter, Hadley, whose first utterance of "daddy," her father reports, Hedrick heard on Skype the other day. With the guidance of Lynsey's brother Austin, a youth minister, Hedrick was formally born again last November, a week before dealing Davis his only middle-distance World Cup defeat all season. And the Hedricks just moved into a new home in Spring, where the nursery will never be short on Pampers, thanks to an endorsement deal that provides for a lifetime supply.
Less than a month ago Lynsey, back in Houston studying for her real-estate license, suffered a miscarriage while Hedrick was training in Salt Lake. "Once we found out that one in three women will have them, we realized that God wasn't picking on us," he says. "I told Lynsey we'll meet our child one day, whether here on earth or in heaven."
When he describes his previous self, Hedrick can be so harsh that he sounds like Davis circa 2006. Looking back, he says, he regrets how he treated others. "Let's just say my life has gone through some transformations in the last 18 months. It's hard to believe, with a gold medal around your neck, that you're in a dark spot in your life. Now, if I win the gold or finish 24th, I know my wife is gonna love me just as much, my daughter is gonna love me just as much, and I'm gonna be in Houston at the beginning of March, living my life."
Hedrick has now medaled at four different distances, something even Davis can't claim. And his performance last night injects a little more drama into Saturday's 1,500 meters. Hedrick is the only man to beat Davis at that distance this season, and cited his ability to medal in the shorter 1,000 last night -- "in a race I don't wake up every morning thinking about winning" -- as further feeding his confidence.
Hedrick calls the 1,500 "the race that got away" from both him and Davis in Turin, where Italy's Enrico Fabris rode a wave of sound from the home crowd to grab gold in an event right in the Americans' wheelhouse.
"[Shani and I] drive each other, just make each other better," Hedrick said after claiming the bronze last night. "At the end of the day, what more could Americans ask for?"
The last time the two shared a press conference dais at an Olympics, they left by separate doors. This time they went off into the Richmond night, if not exactly arm and arm, at least through the same portal.