Shani Davis was back at the Evanston (Ill.) Speedskating Club last month, embracing the roots of his Olympic dreams. He laughed, joked with a multiracial group of young skaters and shouted encouragement. "Shani's the Pied Piper," says George Babicz, a coach at the club who has worked with Davis since the skater was 15. "The kids adore him. He remembers being one of them."
That was before he started making history--and making waves. Davis, 23, qualified for the U.S. Olympic short-track team in 2002, becoming the country's first black Olympic speedskater. On long-track ovals he broke world records in the 1,000 and 1,500 meters. Last February he won the world allround championship, a long-track event, staking his claim as the best skater on the planet.
Though four weeks ago Davis failed, by one place, to qualify for Turin in short track--he had hoped to become the first athlete to skate in short- and long-track events at the same Games--he has an excellent chance to become the first black athlete to win an Olympic speedskating medal. (A relay alternate, Davis did not compete in Salt Lake City.) "He may be a star," says Babicz, "but I wish everyone could see him with the kids. That's Shani at his best."
But critics point to another side of Davis. Last February, U.S. Speedskating reduced Davis's funding when he refused to remove the logo of a personal sponsor that breached the federation's agreement. Davis, who had already moved his training base to Calgary, began referring to the federation as "the enemy." Other skaters, including Chad Hedrick, Derek Parra and Chris Witty, have also left the national-team program because of sponsorship issues, but Davis's departure exacerbated an already acrimonious relationship with the federation.
Davis's mother, Cherie, who was his manager until October, often fires off scathing e-mails and letters to officials and other skaters, blasting their lack of support for her son and the racism she perceives within the sport. After one U.S. skater congratulated Davis on his world title last year, Cherie told her to steer clear of Shani because she had never been supportive in the past. "We should celebrate Shani," the skater said, "but people are afraid to talk about him because of how it might come off."
Katie Marquard, executive director of U.S. Speedskating, insists the federation has always backed Davis. A year ago it moved the long-track trials to further separate them from the short-track trials, primarily to accommodate Davis. He skipped the long-track trials anyway, having prequalified for the team. "Cherie is a very supportive mother--that's the best way to put it," says Marquard, choosing her words deliberately. "She looks out for him."
To understand Davis's me-against-the-world mentality, you have to know his back story. Kids in his neighborhood on Chicago's South Side called him "Oreo" for participating in a predominantly white sport. Fellow competitors at the training camps he attended in Lake Placid as a teen picked fights with him and called him "Boy."
In March 2001 two Chicago police officers cornered Davis in an apparent case of mistaken identity. According to Davis, the officers ordered him to put his hands against a building wall while one shined a flashlight into his underwear to check for contraband.
That December, Davis qualified for the Olympic team at the expense of Tommy O'Hare--who claimed that Davis's friend, Apolo Anton Ohno, and Rusty Smith had conspired to let Davis win his final race. "Why do people have to find excuses for my accomplishments?" Davis said later.
Ohno, the double Olympic medalist, knows Davis better than most and understands how slights drive him. "Shani's a great guy. He just likes someone pushing his buttons," Ohno says. "The more [that happens], the better he skates."
The team that will represent the United States in long-track speedskating at the Olympics in Turin will be among the deepest and most experienced that the U.S. has ever fielded. Six of the skaters won medals in Salt Lake City: Derek Parra (gold, 1,500 meters; silver, 5,000); Casey FitzRandolph (gold, 500); Kip Carpenter (bronze, 500); Joey Cheek (bronze, 1,000); Chris Witty (gold, 1,000); Jennifer Rodriguez (bronze, 1,000 and 1,500). Two others have won the world allround title, skating's most prestigious honor: Chad Hedrick (above) in 2004 and Shani Davis in 2005.