In a repeat of his performance four years ago in Turin, Shani Davis won the gold medal in the 1,000 meters but was forced to settle for silver in the 1,500, the Olympic title he covets most
This is an article from the March 1, 2010 issue
The 1,500 meters is known in speedskating as the Race of Kings. It's where the rulers of the sprints and the royalty of distance racing meet to determine who can best blend speed and endurance—process adrenaline but keep the lactic acid at bay. Since he was winning national age-group championships as a junior in Chicago, Shani Davis of the U.S. has dreamed of Olympic gold in the 1,500. Countryman Chad Hedrick has so wanted to win the race that for the last two years 1500 GOLD 2010 OLYMPICS topped the list of goals taped to the back of his front door at home in Spring, Texas, so he would see it whenever he left the house. The two Americans finished two-three in Turin four years ago, leaving the gold to the homestanding Enrico Fabris of Italy. "I think Shani would agree," Hedrick said on the eve of the race, "that the 1,500 is the one that sort of got away."
Last Saturday it got away again, spirited off by Mark Tuitert of the Netherlands, who from his balcony in the Olympic Village had been looking longingly out at BC Place Stadium, site of the nightly medals ceremony. "I wanted to stand there so, so bad," Tuitert said. "I gave it all I got—if Shani or Chad was going to be better today, so be it." Neither was; Davis settled for silver, and Hedrick placed sixth.
With Davis having won gold and Hedrick bronze in the 1,000 meters three days earlier, each can now claim four career Olympic medals, making them the most decorated American male long-track skaters since Eric Heiden, who won five golds in 1980. But given their shared futility in the Olympic 1,500 and their fractious relationship in Turin (Hedrick faulted Davis for not skating the team pursuit, and Davis resented Hedrick's presuming what was best for him), not all the two have done jointly has been glorious.
Davis, 27, came to the Games with Dutch sponsors and a Japanese girlfriend following from afar, as well as a strained relationship with the U.S. speedskating federation. Davis may technically have been a member of Team USA, but just before the opening ceremonies he made sure to declare, "I'm a solo entity." More than anything he wanted to undergo a Turin-ectomy. Not, he insisted, to recoup the endorsement dollars he left on the table in 2006 after that feud with Hedrick went excruciatingly public and he scarcely looked at NBC's Melissa Stark during a post-gold-medal interview. As Davis said before the 1,000 meters, "I have enough [money] to take care of myself and my loved ones." He wanted, rather, to skate well, and to do that, he needed to find Olympic bliss.
Enter Davis's personal attaché, fellow Chicagoan Nathaniel Mills, a three-time Olympic speedskater and self-described "buffer between Shani and all the forces that might otherwise throw him off his game." If Davis wanted to banish all things negative from his Olympic experience, he found the perfect collaborator in Mills, cofounder of the Olympism Project, an organization that evangelizes for anything gauzy and five-ringed, from fair play and joy in effort, to peace, service and "world citizenship." Moreover, 15 years earlier Mills had coached a 12-year-old Shani at the Evanston Speed Skating Club. "All I know is he was the hardest worker and the hardest player, meaning he had the most fun," Mills recalls.
Mills honchoed an aggressive social-media strategy, which included Facebook and Twitter pages, and YouTube videos called SOS (Shani on Shani), "to cut out the middleman and speak directly to his many, many fans throughout the world." Mills tended particularly to the care and feeding of NBC's Andrea Kremer, the reporter to whom Stark had yielded and whom Davis charmed during midfield interviews. "Compared to four years ago, he's having fun," said Mills. "He's present and engaged and lighthearted."
Hedrick, 32, made clear that Vancouver would be his final Olympics and emphasized the turn his life had taken over the past two years, during which he had married, found religion and become a father. "Let's just say I've gone through some transformation," he said. "It's hard to believe that with a gold medal around your neck, you're in a dark spot in your life."
The old brash Hedrick wasn't entirely gone, to judge by the message—MY DADDY IS FASTER THAN YOURS—that graced the knit cap on the head of his 11-month-old daughter, Hadley. But, he said, "now I'm a much better sport than I used to be. Before I didn't want to show any weakness."
Between Hedrick's newfound grace and Davis's determination to enjoy himself, it wasn't hard for the two to reach a rapprochement. "All that happened before, it's old news," Hedrick said. "No one's wondering who wants to play with who."
"Solo entity" doesn't really ring with the Olympic spirit, so Mills helped Davis strike an alternative that still underscored his separateness from the U.S. speedskating team. On his backpack Davis sported a button reading, I'M A WORLD CITIZEN. His mother, Cherie, the toughest-to-please member of Team Davis, beamed at a Feb. 13 New York Times headline that read AMERICAN SPEEDSKATER SHANI DAVIS BELONGS TO THE WORLD. Conveniently finding himself in the emcee role at a press conference after Davis's 1,000-meter gold, Mills posed the opening question: "Shani, how do you explain that you're a citizen of the world?" Thus a new narrative was born, with Mills as the attending midwife.
Before the 1,000 meters, the Shani Whisperer slipped his client a DVD of The Matrix to make vivid, Mills said, "that a mind without fear, doubts or disbelief will enable you to accomplish what you want. And he had anxiety and doubts before the 1,000."
Those fears weren't unfounded. After 600 meters Davis sat fifth overall, more than a quarter second behind leader Mo Tae-Bum of South Korea, the gold medalist in the 500 meters. Davis called a last-lap audible, swinging both arms twice on the final backstretch instead of keeping his left arm back in aerodynamic position. "I was just trying to carry my speed," he explained afterward. "I could feel it leaving me."
He began the last turn almost recklessly early, but his confidence in the corners—a legacy of his beginnings as a short-track skater—enabled him to carve out the second-best final lap of the day and win what he would call "the hardest race I've ever skated." He offered Hedrick one end of an American flag, which they jointly paraded around the Richmond Olympic Oval.
Saturday's 1,500, Hedrick's best distance, would be like a hyped prizefight, given that Hedrick had been the only skater to defeat Davis in the event during the World Cup season. In advance of the Race of Kings, Mills cued up When We Were Kings, the documentary about the 1974 Ali-Foreman Rumble in the Jungle.
Tuitert had already skated his gold medal time when Hedrick toed the start. He wore like an emotional millstone the realization that this was his final individual race. "I was a little bit of a wreck and lost control of the race and forgot things technically," he said.
Skating in the final pair, Davis labored through the last lap, occasionally showing his teeth from the effort. Having opted out of the team pursuit, he ended an Olympics that were supposed to have put Turin behind him—by duplicating his Turin performance with another 1,500 silver.
Tuitert, 29, is the first Dutchman since Ard Schenk in 1972 to wear the Olympic 1,500 crown. For years he skated at a range of distances, winning a European all-around title in 2004 before becoming a middle-distance specialist in 2008 and picking up a reputation for falling in big races. But he felt his form solidifying over the past weeks, and before the race he actually told a TV interviewer that he thought he would win.
Both Americans struck gracious notes after the race. "The Olympics are all about coming up with one special moment, and Mark did that today," Hedrick said. Added Davis, "Mark deserves it. He's the king."
Asked if he was surprised by Tuitert's win, Davis said, "I've learned not to be surprised after what happened in Torino. The big battle [then] was supposed to be me and Chad, me and Chad, me and Chad, and Enrico snuck up on us. But I still someday want to win this race. It's still my favorite. This will probably keep me in the sport for four more years. If I'd won today, I'd have been complete."
If Davis is not yet a complete entity, he's no longer a solo entity either. The result of the 1,500 ensured that for at least the next quadrennial, Shani and Chad will remain yoked in Olympic lore, like Torvill and Dean. They'll be known for their early enmity, common achievements, eventual détente and, until Davis laces up his skates in Sochi, the hole in their résumés.