Shani Davis: Fastest Man On Skates

By Phil Hersh
Updated: November 15, 2004

Shani Davis

CHICAGO, ILL,—The 2004-05 World Cup circuit in long track speedskating began last Saturday in Hamar, Norway. The race program includes the 1,500 meters, the even in which Chicagoan Shani Davis became world champion last year.

But Davis won’t be tooling around the 1994 Olympic oval in Hamar. He will be in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., trying to qualify for the next two World Cup events in short-track speedskating.

Everyone but Davis thinks he is on the wrong track.

“His heart is in short track, even if he could be the next person (after Eric Heiden) to qualify in every Olympic event in long track,” said Bob Fenn of Milwaukee, who occasionally coaches Davis.

Northbrook native Andy Gabel, a three-time Olympian in short track and currently president of U.S. Speedskating, said dozens of people have tried to convince Davis to concentrate on long track, the traditional side of the sport.

“He is extraordinary in long track,” Gabel said. “His stride is incredibly efficient, he has amazing strength and a huge oxygen tank.

“In short track, Shani is competent. His size (6 feet 2 inches, 175 pounds) hurts him in terms of agility.”

Of course, if Davis had followed tradition, he might never have become the first African-American skater to win a medal (silver) at the World All-Around Championships and a title at the World Single Distance Championships, and become the first U.S. man to make a world team in both short- and long-track disciplines in the same season.

He did all that last winter after having become the first black speedskater to make a U.S. Olympic team two years earlier.

“I’m not doing anything different from last year,” Davis said via telephone from Calgary, where the 1988 Olympic oval is his primary training rink. “Short track is fun for me, and I like doing what is fun.”

Short track definitely is more fun. It is a race against a pack of people, first to the finish the winner, with a few elements of roller derby thrown in to make the race more exciting. Long trackers race in pairs, but they are competing against the clock.

The little money available in the sport is in long track, where Dutch and Norwegian companies are ready to pay the stars.

The prize money for the long-track World Cup is from 50 to 300 percent more, depending on category, than the money on the short-track circuit.

Chad Hedrick of the U.S., reigning world all-around champion, skates for a team sponsored by a Dutch bank and will make a low six-figure income from the sport this year. U.S. sprinter Kip Carpenter skates for the same team.

“I don’t skate for the money,” Davis said. “I don’t have many bills to pay, and what I do, I can pay from the money I make in skating. You can’t let your passion for the sport get clouded by money.”

Davis, 22, a 2002 Olympian in short track, wants to be the first to compete in both short and long track events at the Olympics.

In short track, Davis is among several skaters scrambling for places on a U.S. team dominated by Olympic champion Apolo Anton Ohno.

If Davis is the top U.S. finisher at the New York meet, he will qualify for the individual events and the relay at the upcoming two World Cup events. If he is second or third, he will qualify for the relay at both but individual events only at one.

Davis was in the latter situation at the first two World Cups last month in China. He skated only the relay–which was disqualified in the final–at the opening World Cup in Harbin. He then was 16th overall individually (Ohno was second after winning in Harbin) and part of a silver-medal relay in Beijing.

“What Shani is doing works in terms of training, but in terms of competing, he absolutely is wasting his time in short track,” Gabel said.

Davis, who also has completed two years of studies at Northern Michigan, believes he has not reached his potential in short track. He thinks he has plenty of time to concentrate on long track, “which you can do in your 30s.”

Based on last year’s performances, Davis made this season’s long-track World Cup team in the 1,500, 5,000 and 10,000 meters. By declining to compete in the fall portion of the long-track World Cup schedule, he must do well at U.S. Championships in December to make the team for the 2005 world meets.

He intends to focus on long track again in early December but admits those plans could change based on results this weekend.

“It is possible I would do only long track the rest of this season and for the Olympics,” Davis said. “But I like what I’m doing now, and I don’t want to sell myself short.”