No Longer the Rebel, Shani Davis Looks to Rise in Ranks of Olympic Greats

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No Longer the Rebel, Shani Davis Looks to Rise in Ranks of Olympic Greats
Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

U.S. long-track speedskating star Shani Davis opened his fourth Olympics by taking a loss in stride—seeing it more as a key opportunity to train for his biggest races, including the 1,000 meters Wednesday.

On Monday, Davis completed two easy 500-meter runs on his way to a 24th-place finish, tweaking his speed in the races as if he were taking batting practice before he hopes to hit a couple of home runs in the 1,000 and the 1,500, which happens Saturday.

Davis, 31 years old, wants to add to his stash of four Olympic medals, and if he is to get another, it will likely come in the 1,000 (in which he has two golds) or the 1,500 (in which he has two silvers).

"I think it was a good setup for me for the 1,000," Davis said on NBC just after finishing the 500. "It was what I was looking for today. I have to get up to speed in the first 100, take the positive from doing that today and make it perfect for the 1,000."

Associated Press

Medals in Sochi will add more prestige to a career that has been as interesting for its off-ice evolution as its on-ice accomplishments.

Tony Duffy/Getty Images

How many long-track speedskaters do we remember? Dan Jansen, of course, for his final, teary win in the 1,000 in 1994, when his baby daughter was passed to him through the crowd in Hamar, Norway, so that he could take a victory lap with her cradled in his arms. 

Eric Heiden, with his five medals in 1980 and a medical degree—we remember him. And Bonnie Blair, with her squeaky voice and outsize thighs, who, like Davis, appeared in four Olympics and won five gold medals and a bronze.

Mark Duncan/Associated Press

And we'll remember Davis too, now more for his skating than his attitude.

With his four career medals, Davis is in a large group tied for 18th on the all-time speedskating medal list, according to Sports-Reference.com. With two medals in Sochi, he would move up into a tie for seventh. He trails only three Americans in total medals.

Earlier in his career, he was known more for his sullen demeanor and his outspoken mother who all but called the sport racist.

His first Games, in 2002, were a non-starter—he made the team in short-track but chose to compete in junior events instead.

At the 2006 Winter Games in Torino, Davis became the first black athlete from any country to win an individual Winter Olympics medal when he took gold in the 1,000 meters.

He came back and won silver in the 1,500, but he was more popular in the speedskating hotbed of Holland, where he lived for a while.

Before the Torino Games, Davis' mother, Cherie, accused the U.S. federation of not supporting her son. "I told everybody, don't speak to him, don't talk about him, don't even look at him. All you can do for Shani is leave him alone. Just leave him alone," she said at the time, via Sports Illustrated.

After he won that first gold, NBC reporter Melissa Stark pulled Davis aside for the mandatory winner's interview, and all Stark got was Davis staring at the ground and giving one-word answers. Finally, Stark asked Davis if he was angry. Davis mumbled "no."

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press
Davis on the medal stand in 2010

Cherie was more outspoken. "Why should he be all warm to her," Cherie said later, according to Sports Illustrated. "She's got some painted-on smile. She doesn't care about Shani. Why does his first moment have to be shared with that woman?"  

But the longer Davis was in the sport, the more he became comfortable with himself, other athletes and fans. He had had a contentious relationship with America's other speedskating star, Chad Hedrick, in Torino, where Davis would not participate in the team pursuit event. But this week you could see Davis putting his arms around other American speedskaters and acting as if he was a mentor.

In Vancouver four years ago, Davis became the first man to defend the 1,000-meter medal and then repeated with the 1,500 silver. He was friendly and smiled, something you never saw in Torino.

His first post-race television interview in 2014 was appropriate, honest and filled with the information we wanted. He had used the race to get ready for his specialties.

As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel notes, he told reporters in the mixed zone Monday after his race, "I really accept the role that I have now. I embrace it. I'm happy and proud that I'm in the position I'm in because a few years ago I wasn't. Here I am now, I'm doing better than ever skating-wise, media-wise, teammate-wise. Everything is positive. And I am so happy things are positive."

Davis' attitude change has also helped him bring in sponsors such as McDonald's, AT&T, United Airlines and accounting firm Deloitte.

History should remember Davis only for his skating now, and not his early behavior.

He is second in history in World Cup points with 57. Only Canada's Jeremy Wotherspoon (67) has more. His 92 World Cup medals ranks only behind Jansen's 104.

And Davis' chance to star at these Olympics begins Wednesday. He will be cheered for loudly by Americans and by Dutch fans, too, who understand his history. 

Watching Davis grow into this strong supporter of his sport and his fellow teammates, watching him grow up and not need his mother's voice, but to represent himself with both his voice and his skates—it has been a fun ride. And it's not over yet.


Diane Pucin is the Olympics lead writer for Bleacher Report. She has covered two Winter Olympics and two Summer Olympics for The Philadelphia Inquirer and four Summer Olympics for the Los Angeles Times.

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