American speedskater Shani Davis is headed into Sochi trying to do something that no American has ever done: win three straight gold medals in a single event at the Winter Games.
The 31-year-old is the face of American speedskating. In his fourth Olympics, Davis will have more eyes on him than ever as he attempts to skate his way into the history books.
I had a chance to talk with Davis as he promoted McDonalds' #CheerstoSochi campaign, a program that encourages fans to tweet their messages of support to their favorite Olympians and gives the athletes a chance to print out their favorite messages and wear them on ribbons.
Davis is excited about the chance to hear directly from fans during these Games.
"It empowers me to want to do my job," he said. "I know so many people back home and possibly even all over the world are rooting for me, and I just want to make sure I leave everything out there on the ice for them so that they know at the end of the day I did the best I could."
The sponsorship opportunities and incessant media obligations are new to Davis, who was often overlooked in the past due to the superstardom of his friend, short-track legend Apolo Ohno.
"There was no real spotlight for me," Davis admitted. "'[Ohno] was a true celebrity and sports star; I just had to wait my turn in line."
Clearly confident with his new-found celebrity status, Davis was polite and enthusiastic throughout our talk, thrilled at his opportunity to make history and ready to use his veteran status to his advantage.
"I'm just as excited as I was my first Olympics, but not as nervous because I know what to expect," he said. "I have the experience now."
Davis first started skating when he was only six years old in Hyde Park, Chicago. His family loved roller skating, and when he showed a natural affinity for the skates, his mother had hopes that he would become a roller dancer. But Davis had no interest in that, and he found his calling when his mother's boss recommended that he try speedskating.
"I'm just a competitor at heart," he said. "The whole reason I wanted to start skating was simply just to skate fast."
And skate fast he did. Davis steamrolled through the roller skating competitions and soon transitioned from wheels to blades. He then became one of the top speedskaters in the nation.
He was on the Salt Lake City short-track team in 2002 as an alternate, and though he didn't even compete, he made history simply by being there. Davis was the first black speedskater ever named to the U.S. Olympic team, and the impact of his nomination was felt immediately.
"Back in 2002 I didn't even participate," he said. "I was just an alternate. But just me making the team meant so much to so many people."
In fact, his participation in the Olympics that year inspired the creation of the Inner City Excellence (ICE) program in Washington D.C. According to its website, ICE is a "skating-based youth excellence program" that "unites urban youth from all backgrounds in the common pursuit of excellence in body, mind, and spirit." Davis is an honorary board member and still goes back to visit the kids whenever he can.
"They had all these kids who looked like me skating because of what they saw on TV," he said, "because I stood out and I was different."
From there, Davis continued to grow as a skater and a champion. He switched from short-track to long-track speedskating, and in 2006, he became the first black athlete from any nation to win a gold medal at the Winter Olympics when he became the champion in the 1,000 meters. He also won the silver that year in the 1,500 meters and repeated both feats in the 2010 Games in Vancouver.
While Davis appreciates the fact that he is a pioneer and likes to give back when he can, he doesn't dwell on the color of his skin.
"I don't necessarily care so much about 'first black' and all this other stuff," he said. "It would be different if I was like, Jackie Robinson, and there were a whole bunch of different black speedskaters, and I was the first one to break the trend and be successful at it, but I'm one of very few.
"I'm proud of it, but I don't let that define who I am. I'm just a guy who tries his best.... I try and keep it simple," he said.
Keeping it simple must be working for Davis. He's once again a favorite in the 1,000-meter race and a contender in the 1,500 meters and has high hopes headed into these Games.
"For me, a successful Olympics would be defending my title in the 1,000-meter race, maybe winning my first ever 1,500-meter race and doing the best we can as a team in the team pursuit," he said.
With a nation watching him closer than ever before, Davis has the opportunity in Sochi to become an American Olympic legend, and, at long last, a household name.
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