Best U.S. speedskater goes it alone
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
As speedskating approaches its quadrennial reckoning, the story is this: Just as no skater since
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
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
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
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'
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
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
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
With golds from Davis, Hedrick and
It shouldn't. Hedrick, the Texan once dubbed the
As for Davis, in October he told the
Nothing punctures a bubble more effectively than irony and satire, the stock in trade of
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,
"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
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
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.