Looking Out for No. 1

He may not win a popularity contest among teammates, but Shani Davis stayed true to himself and made history in the 1,000
February 27, 2006

Shani Davis wasenjoying a victory lap shortly after winning the 1,000 meters last Saturdaynight when Erben Wennemars, the Dutchman who had finished third behind Davisand Joey Cheek of the U.S., offered a congratulatory hug. "A party forAmerica," Wennemars told Davis. "You guys can all party together."He was, at best, half right. ¶ Yes, there was reason to celebrate back in theStates. Davis's gold medal, the first won by a black athlete in an individualevent at a Winter Olympics, was the third for the U.S. men's speedskating teamin Turin. Chad Hedrick won the 5,000 meters on Feb. 11, and Cheek took the 500two days later. Because Hedrick was the world-record holder in the final twoindividual events, the 1,500 on Tuesday and the 10,000 on Friday, the U.S. teamhad a shot at collectively matching Eric Heiden's sweep of the five races atthe 1980 Lake Placid Games. "Across the board, this year's team is superior[to any team in U.S. history]," says Heiden, now an orthopedic surgeonwho's in Turin as the U.S. speedskating team physician. "It's the mostbalanced, talented team I've ever seen."

But you won't catchthem partying together, as Wennemars suggested. This is a fractious group thathas become even more divided in Turin. (Some, such as Davis, Hedrick and DerekParra, have broken with the U.S. speedskating federation over sponsorshipissues.) Last Wednesday, in the quarterfinals of the new team pursuit event,Italy eliminated the U.S. trio of Hedrick, KC Boutiette and Charles RyanLeveille. Heading into the Turin Games, Davis had left the door ajar to tryingthe team pursuit (though he had never publicly committed to participating).After finishing seventh in the 5,000, however, he announced that he would skipthe team event to focus on preparations for one of his specialties, the 1,000,three days later. It was a decision that some teammates, coaches and members ofthe media criticized as selfish. "Shani goes his own way," says Heiden."He's not a team player."

Davis's supporterscountered that because the team pursuit was new to the Games, any talk of theU.S. being a medal favorite was purely speculative. All week Davis rebuffedallegations that he was either being unpatriotic or getting back at thefederation, which a year ago reduced his funding when he replaced a federationsponsor's logo on his uniform with that of his own, a Dutch bank.

Hedrick wasparticularly stung by Davis's withdrawal. Heiden is the only U.S. athlete towin more than three medals at one Winter Games; a medal in the pursuit wouldhave put Hedrick in position to join him in that rarefied air. "With Shani,we'd be the favorites for sure," Hedrick said after Davis pulled out."It's a shame he didn't want to be a part of it." Asked after the 1,000if he felt happy for the victorious Davis, Hedrick, who wound up sixth in thatevent, replied wryly, "I'm happy for Joey."

Davis's victoryprovided him with a measure of vindication for another unpopular decision hehad made: Against the advice of U.S. coaches, he had opted to pursue bothshort- and long-track skating over the last four years. Davis had not yetemerged as a long-track whiz in 2002, when he qualified as an Olympic alternateon the U.S. short-track team. But as he began to have more success on the ovalthan on the rink, coaches encouraged him to devote his training timeexclusively to long track.

At 6'2", 185pounds, Davis, 23, has the lengthy strides that are ideal for the oval'sstraightaways but ill-suited for the darting and jostling on the rink. However,Davis has always loved the tightly clustered chaos of short-track racing,equating it to stock car racing. He missed qualifying for the short-track teamby one spot last month, but his double track has produced a fringe benefit onthe oval: He gains valuable tenths of a second on the turns. While othersapproach the corners with some caution, fearing they might spin out, Davismakes tight cuts with confidence. "The rest of us are all high-stepping itthrough the corners, but Shani never loses speed," says Cheek. "I don'thave many speedskating tapes, but I watch Shani's to see his technique in theturns."

The 1,000 matchedthe strengths of Cheek, the world sprint champ, and Davis, who once held theworld record in the 1,500. "I'm one of the fastest in the first 600,"says Cheek. "Shani's one of the fastest in the last 600." Mindful ofDavis's typically slow starts, his coach, Bob Fenn, urged him not to overreactto discouraging split times on Saturday. "Think of three C's," Fenntold Davis last week. "Calm, cool and collected." But skating in the19th of 21 pairs, Davis started even more slowly than expected. His split of16.96 seconds at 200 meters was only the 33rd fastest of the 42 skaters.

Yet at each turnDavis gained on the fastest time, 1:09.45, which was set by Hedrick in thefourth pair. After he crossed the finish line and saw that he was the newleader at 1:08.89, Davis put one fist up in the air. Then he put his hands onhis head and started to worry. Later he equated his waiting game to a child whosees his favorite chocolate bar tucked behind other candy in a vending machine."I want to be at that vending machine to get my candy," he said. "Iwant a gold medal too."

Skating in the nextpair, Cheek broke quickly at the starting gun, passing the 200 mark in 16.29seconds (tied for best time for that split). "Joey gave me a heartattack," said Davis. "I was trying not to sweat bullets." Cheeklost just enough steam near the end of the long sprint to claim second place at1:09.16. Finally, there was the Dutch pair of Wennemars and Jan Bos, whosecountrymen filled close to half of the 8,250-seat arena; both were ahead ofDavis's pace at the 600-yard mark but flamed out. Davis looked as much relievedas elated. He had cautioned people all week that he was worn-out from hisdisputes with the team and that any potential victory celebration would thus bemuted. "I don't want to be a celebrity athlete," he said. "When youare, you have a halo over your head with everything you do."

In interviews hemay appear to shun the role of trailblazer, but Davis has long been morecomfortable in front of kids than in front of microphones. He works tointroduce children to skating in his native Chicago, where as a boy he waswoken by his mother, Cherie, most mornings to run a mile on a track close totheir home. "I do my part," he says. "If people are happy a blackskater won a gold medal, I'm happy for them."


Read more about the U.S. speedskating and short-trackteams at SI.com/olympics/2006.

PHOTOPhotograph by Damian Strohmeyer ADVANTAGE, SHANI Davis's short-track experience gives him confidence and speedon the long-track turns. PHOTOGREG BAKER/APON TOP Cheek joined Davis, the first black to win gold in a Winter Games individual event, on the medal stand. ILLUSTRATION

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)