SOCHI -- It dangled there, the chance to be the first U.S. Winter Olympian to win gold in the same event for three straight Olympics. Long-track speed skater Shani Davis had won the 1000 meters in Turin in 2006. He had done it again in Vancouver four years later.
His mastery of the distance seemed to have a logic to it, cold and hard, like ice: The 1000 is a sprint, but not so short a race that Davis can’t harvest the benefits of his long, loping form in the straights and light feet in the corners, which harken back to his beginnings as a short-track skater.
And who would pick against him? Davis had won four of this season’s six World Cup 1000-meter races, including the World Sprint Championships only a month ago. The world record holder in the 1000, he has skated the 10 fastest times over that distance at sea level -- and as temperatures outside Adler Arena crept up into the mid-60s, there was no avoiding it: This was at sea level.
And so on Wednesday night Davis blew off the line like a man ready to seize the prize. “I opened up as fast as I’ve ever opened up in 1000 meters,” he would say. “But over 600 meters it wasn’t normal. I was skating hard, so hard, but it just wasn’t there.”
He finished eighth, watching Stefan Groothuis of the Netherlands claim the gold. Eighth is a position that has been tinted red, white and blue for U.S. favorites at these Games, as disappointed downhill skiers Bode Miller and Julia Mancuso could tell Davis.
He had performed well amidst much more turmoil at his last two Olympics. After a feud with teammate Chad Hedrick went public in Turin, Davis chose a solitary path before Vancouver, alternately declaring himself “a solo entity” and “a world citizen.” He gave stateside TV talk shows a miss and called Stephen Colbert, the U.S. team’s sugar daddy, “a jerk.”
Davis’ rift with speed skating’s American governing body is legendary and persists; at Davis’ request, U.S. Speedskating still doesn’t post his bio on its website.
In the formulation of his old friend Apolo Anton Ohno, the former short-track star, Davis isn’t so much misunderstood as not understood.
But in the run-up to the Sochi Games, he has made a real effort to play well with others. Davis says that, for the first time at an Olympics, he’ll skate for his country in the team pursuit.
He’s 31 now, and as his consistency gives him more and more the patina of the steady veteran, stateside endorsers that once gave him a wide berth have taken a second look, from McDonald’s and United to Under Armour, AT&T and Ralph Lauren.
He has even reached out to the press, which he once pointed out, not unreasonably, tends to “highlight everyone’s belch and fart.” US magazine was only too happy to put him on a pre-Olympic cover.
There was no mistaking what Davis meant when he told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel last week, “I’m happy and proud that I’m in the position I’m in because a few years ago I wasn’t… I’m doing better than ever skating-wise, media-wise, teammate-wise. Everything is positive.”
After his loss in the 1000, he heard out every probing, tough question from the Leap-Year Legion, we American dilettantes with laptops who leer at his sport every four years.
“There’s no excuse, nothing physical that went wrong. I simply didn’t have that lap.”
Are you in shock?
“I’m not in shock,” he said, not at all sarcastically. “I’m very in tune with reality.”
Did your race unfold the way you expected?
“I had a good game plan and I executed it for 40 percent of the race. But the other 60 percent wasn’t good skating.”
What about the 1500 meters on Friday?
“Obviously I’ve got to figure something out, and quick, or the same thing will happen in the 1500. And that would be very, very, very, very bad.”
Do you have faith that you can win it?
“I still have total faith -- I won’t say faith, trust -- in what I can do. I did my best, and it wasn’t good enough. As a human being I’ve got to learn to accept that. I’m a competitor and a good sport. If other people are better, good for them and too bad for me. It was the best I could do as a competitor and a man.
“I know that if they can go fast, I can go faster. I’ve done it in the past. I wasn’t able to do it today.”
And then Davis alluded to something he had never before let on concerned him. He acknowledged this was the Olympic stage and that he might have left some cash on the ice.
“It’s terrible because as an American, this is where I bank in,” he said. “If I’d have won this race, there’d be possibilities -- and they won’t be there because of what I didn’t do today.”
Davis calls the 1000 and the 1500 “my babies.” But he freely admits he loves the 1500 the most. It’s the distance over which he won his first race as a junior. It’s the race that first broke him into the international rankings. In 2009 he set a world record in the event that still stands.
It’s also the distance at which he has never won Olympic gold.
As it happens, speed skating aficionados love the 1500 too. It’s enshrined in the annals of the sport as the Race of Kings, the distance that best challenges a skater’s speed and endurance -- where a skater must maximize adrenaline and minimize lactic acid.
Whether in the Race of Kings or the team pursuit, U.S. male long-track speed skaters, who in three races haven’t yet placed higher than Davis’ eighth today, are becoming desperate to salvage something.
The Dutch men have made such a grab of speed skating medals at these games that they’ve claimed eight of nine podium spots, with only Davis’ old training partner, 1000-meter silver medalist Denny Morrison of Canada, interrupting the parade of oranje in the flower ceremonies.
Davis is the closest thing to Dutch that an American can be. He has his own agent in the Low Countries, who has landed him deals with banks and mobile-phone carriers.
When TV crews fly over from Holland to film lengthy documentaries about him, he all but meets them at the airport and squires them around town. There’s a photo of the Dutch great Erben Wennemars on his refrigerator -- surely making his the only icebox in Chicago so graced. This week he called the Dutch skater with whom he was paired for the 1000, Koen Verweij, “my homeboy;” after the race he gave Groothuis a hug of congratulations, and he fielded one of consolation from a Dutch journalist.
“The world sees skating every day,” Davis said. “They understand it. They appreciate it. They know that even though I finished eighth today, I’m still a great skater. The best skaters don’t always win. Hopefully someday Americans will understand that.”