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ROAD TO TURIN: Shani Davis Skates To His Own Tune On Path To Olympics
CHICAGO—Most black kids growing up on Chicago’s South Side in the 1980s and ’90s wanted to soar through the air like M.J. or take handoffs for Da Bears.
Shani Davis had other ideas.
A couple of times a week, he climbed into a car with his doting mother for the one-hour-and-then-some commute to the north side, where he would don a pair of skates, snuggle into a tight-fitting suit and try to go faster than anyone else on the ice.
Davis’ friends struggled to make sense of it all, turning to those familiar weapons of childhood. Ridicule. Scorn. Humiliation.
They doled out derogatory terms about his sexuality, called him an “Oreo” for hanging with all those white people at the rink. They wondered why someone of obvious athletic ability would pass up the chance to shoot hoops or run with the football – especially during such a glorious era in the Windy City’s sporting life.
Speedskating? What’s that?
“It was pretty derogatory stuff, especially at that young of an age,” Davis recalled. “But what I was doing was so different. Now, when I see some of those same people, they truly respect what I do. A lot of them say they’re sorry for what they said. I don’t hold it against them. They just didn’t know anything about it.”
The 23-year-old Davis still skates to his own tune, an inner-city interloper who has stirred things up in a close-knit, white-dominated sport.
“I always went against the grade,” he said. “I didn’t care what people said. That’s skin deep. I did what I like.”
Come February, despite having failed in his historic quest to qualify for both the short and long track teams, Davis could be one of the biggest American stars at the Turin Games.
For starters, his skin color ensures he will stand out – few blacks compete in any of the winter sports. Then there’s his prowess on the big oval – world record holder in the 1,000 meters, former holder of the 1,500 mark, already qualified for the Olympic team. He very well could return to his old ‘hood in Hyde Park with a gold medal or two hanging around his neck.
No matter what happens, Mom has his back.
Cherie Davis raised her only child as a single parent, got him involved in roller skating when he was 2 1/2 (“he would go a couple of laps, then ask for quarters so he could play the video games”), became his manager and closest confidante, and defiantly stands up to even the smallest of slights.
She’s had a long-running battle with U.S. Speedskating and the country’s Olympic hierarchy, believing they haven’t done enough to support her son. She doesn’t hesitate to rip off scathing e-mails to other skaters or their parents, warning them to stay out of Shani’s business. She claims her son endured all sorts of racial harassment from a white skating community that called him “boy” and was quick to disqualify him from races at the smallest sign of trouble.
“They turned up their nose and snubbed us,” Cherie Davis said. “Now, they want to be our friends. Well, I don’t want to be friends. I’ll be the bad guy. People always say, ‘Shani is really sweet, but ohhhh his mother.’”
Indeed, it’s impossible to talk about Shani without bringing up his mom. Most skaters and officials are reticent to discuss her on the record, but their rolling eyes and tightened lips are a telling sign of how she’s viewed in the speedskating world.
That said, Shani wouldn’t think of loosening ties with the woman who raised him, who made sure he never wanted for anything even when money was tight, who went out of her way to get him to every practice, every meet. The women who now fights all his battles so he can focus on his skating.
“If someone is doing something against your child, something that’s not in his best interests, how many parents would stand aside and let that happen?” he said. “I never asked to be put on this Earth. I never talked to my mom beforehand and said, ‘Hey, I want to be born, I want to be in this sport, I want to do this or that.’ She feels it’s her duty – and I agree with her – to take care of me. If taking care of me means getting involved in my business, that’s fine.”
Another long track skater, Kip Carpenter, insists Davis is “a great guy” who gets along just fine with his fellow competitors. Still, Carpenter acknowledges the unique arrangement of “Team Shani.”
“He’s his own person, but I don’t know how many decisions he makes on his own,” Carpenter said. “I believe he has a lot of direction. In a lot of instances, he doesn’t even make an effort, someone else makes the effort for him or just handles it. … I was maybe 7 or 8 the last time my mom put clothes out for me to wear for school.”
Davis became the first black speedskater to make the U.S. Olympic team in 2002. He hardly had time to celebrate before another skater screamed fix, accusing Apolo Anton Ohno and Rusty Smith of conspiring to get their friend on the short track squad. The charges were tossed out and Davis stayed on the team, but he wasn’t picked to skate in Salt Lake City.
Over the past four years, Davis emerged as one of the world’s best long track skaters, his 6-foot-2, 185-pound frame better suited to racing against the clock on a big, sweeping oval. Still, he refused to give up short track, reveling in the excitement of pack racing on a tightly bunched hockey rink.
Earlier this month, having already qualified for the long track team through his strong World Cup performances, Davis tried to become the first American to make both speedskating squads at the same Olympics. It was a daunting challenge that left his fellow skaters in awe.
“I tell people it’s like having a track cyclist go do road cycling,” Ohno said. “It’s two totally different sports. It’s crazy. I don’t know how he does it.”
Alas, Davis came up short at the short track trials in Marquette, Mich., earlier this month, falling in the final event and winding up sixth in the overall standings – one spot away from making the five-man team.
He won’t even attend the U.S. long track championships, which begin Tuesday in Salt Lake City, preferring to begin his Olympic training in solitude rather than take part in a trials-style meet that will fill out the remaining spots on the team.
Davis’ failure to qualify for short track could benefit his performance on the big oval. He won’t have to worry about doing the double, allowing him to concentrate on the events where he has the best chance for medals.
“They always say when one door closes, another one opens,” Davis said. “It’s up to me to find it. Hopefully, all my experiences (at the short track trials) will motivate me. I had a grasp of my goal, and I fumbled it. I’ve got to make sure I catch it the next time. I can’t have any mistakes. I’ve got to master it.”
Even if he does, Davis is skeptical about the prospects of cashing in on Olympic gold. He doesn’t believe U.S. Speedskating does enough to promote its athletes, and his battle over sponsorship issues led to him demanding that his biography be removed from the organization’s Web site.
“The rights of the athlete are sold away,” he said. “There’s no type of individualism. If you try to be an individual, you’re punished for it.”
Davis knows better than anyone that speedskating remains a minor sport in the U.S., popping up every four years and fading away as soon as the flame is extinguished. When people say an Olympic medal would bring all sorts of financial rewards, he quickly points out that he heard the same thing before he made his first World Cup team, before he won his first world championship, before he set his first world record.
“I’ve gotten more and more attention, but I’ve never gotten anything else,” Davis said. “I’m still waiting. A lot of people say it will come when I’m an Olympic champion. Well, at least there will be no more excuses if that happens. We’ll really see what it’s all about. I’m not even sure anymore.”
Davis’ mother is even more blunt in her assessment.
“What would I tell other African-American kids?” she said. “I would tell them to do track and field.”