Sochi 2014: Is 1,500-Meter Race the Last Gasp for U.S. Star Shani Davis?

Joe MenzerFeatured ColumnistFebruary 14, 2014

Shani Davis of the U.S. skates in the prototype of the official US Speedskating suit during a training session at the Adler Arena Skating Center at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Friday, Feb. 14, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. The team thought it had a chance to do something special, given some impressive World Cup results this season and new high-tech suits from Under Armour, which got an assist in the design from aerospace giant Lockheed Martin. Now, there's plenty of grumbling that the suits are actually slowing the skaters down in Sochi. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
Associated Press

The end is near for Shani Davis at the Sochi Olympics.

It could also be near for his career as one of America's greatest ever speedskaters.

Davis, 31, has said that he very well may continue competing through the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Games in South Korea, but he has unexpectedly struggled at these Olympics—as has, in all fairness, virtually the entire U.S. speedskating team.

How Davis is able to perform in Saturday's 1,500-meter race may provide the final clue to his future. He might be approaching the end of his storied career no matter what happens, although he obviously would like to go out on top—or at least standing somewhere on a medal podium.

The Chicago native made history at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy, where he became the first African American to win an individual gold medal at the Winter Games with his 1,000-meter victory. He successfully defended his 1,000-meter title at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver—and in between won three world titles in the event.

But when it came to the 1,000-meter finals last Wednesday in Sochi, Davis faltered badly. He not only failed to win gold, but didn't even come close to earning a medal of any kind, finishing eighth.

This came on the heels of a 24th-place finish in the 500 meters, although he typically uses the 500 merely to get ready for the longer events that come later and was not expected to contend for a medal.

Now it's on to the 1,500 meters. While Davis owns two Olympic silver medals in the event, and is also the world-record holder at the distance, he has long considered the 1,000-meter event his favorite and the one in which he excels at the best.

The struggles he failed to overcome in the 1,000 meters at Sochi cannot be ignored, though.

Even though some on Team USA have blamed the speedskating suit as the reason for the team's troubles, Davis did not go that route.

"I would like to think it's not the suit. I would never blame the suit," Davis told the The Wall Street Journal's Joshua Robinson and Sarah Germano. "I would much rather blame myself." 

Davis still has a chance to add to his already considerable speedskating legacy. In addition to competing for an individual medal in the 1,500, Davis told the Los Angeles Times prior to the Olympics that he plans to participate in the team pursuit and that, unlike his previous Olympic appearances, he has been training with his U.S. teammates for it.

A medal of any color in the 1,500 or team pursuit would be his fifth, and would put him in a tie with Eric Heiden and Chad Hedrick for the most Olympic speedskating medals by an American male.

Of course, that is not going to be easy.

Davis seems as perplexed as everyone else at his performance in these Olympics.
Davis seems as perplexed as everyone else at his performance in these Olympics.Matt Dunham/Associated Press

The next medal won by an American speedskater in these Olympics will be the first medal won by an American speedskater in these Olympics. So far, they've been shut out despite being favorites in many events.

Liz Clarke of the Washington Post wrote that some journalists who follow the sport closely believe that the U.S. made a colossal mistake by holding its speedskating trials and much of its training in the mountain climate of Park City, Utah, rather than at a lower elevation that would have more closely resembled the seaside air conditions at Sochi.

Davis, again, wasn't willing to use that as an excuse. You have to admire the class with which he has thus far handled the frustration and disappointment of these Olympics.

"You could always say what could have been in retrospect," Davis told the Post after the 1,000 meters. "But looking forward, we just weren't fast enough (in this event). Other people were. We weren't. And now it's time for me to try to figure out the mistakes I did and apply them for the 1,500."

Time is almost up, both for that and on Davis' storied career. How he does in this Sochi Olympic finale could add to his legacy or slightly blemish it. Either way, his career seems to be nearing completion.

Davis actually told at the outset of these Olympic Games not to jump to any knee-jerk conclusions no matter what happens.

Funny, I keep reading in the media that Sochi is my last Olympics. That might be more dramatic for storylines, but I wouldn't say that at all. Maybe Sochi will be my last Olympics and maybe it won't...As a speedskater, Pyeongchang will be a special Olympics since our sport is revered so much there.

It's also true that female speedskater Claudia Pechstein is competing for Germany in Sochi at the ripe athletic age of 41.

But for a competitor like Davis who is used to stockpiling medals and not answering questions about why he has performed so poorly, it seems doubtful that he'll come back to compete in the next Winter Games at age 35 when he's encountering so much trouble getting it done in Sochi at age 31.

Success in the 1,500 meters might alter how he and others interpret the crystal ball that contains his future.

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