Speedskater Davis Is Unleashing Little Boy Inside Of Him

By Ron Judd Courtesy of the Seattle Times
Updated: December 7, 2005

Shani Davis set a world record in the long-track 1,000 meters last month.

Shani Davis set a world record in the long-track 1,000 meters last month.


CHICAGO—It could be the biggest Olympic turnaround since the Fosbury Flop.

The last time speedskater Shani Davis went to the Winter Games, he was the functional equivalent of a pooper scooper in the parade of nations.

That’s not meant as a slam of Davis; it’s exactly how he remembers it, calling his 2002 Salt Lake Games appearance “tarnished.”

His mere appearance on the Olympic team as a short-track speedskater was controversial: Friend and teammate Apolo Ohno of Seattle and another teammate, Rusty Smith, were accused of essentially fixing a race at the U.S. trials to get Davis on the team.

An official protest was filed, and later dropped, by a jilted skater who didn’t make the team. But Davis, an alternate who never set foot on the Delta Center ice in an official race, still seethes about a perceived lack of support from higher-ups in his sport as the controversy raged.

What has he done about it since? Simply dominated the world. And not in his first-choice avocation, short-track speedskating, but in its more elegant stepcousin, long track.

Shani Davis set a world record in the long-track 1,000 meters last month.


The transformation of Davis, now 23, from jilted short-track also-ran to anointed long-track gold medalist would be one of the more remarkable stories in the history of U.S. Winter Olympism. Davis, now a frequent long-track world-record holder and last year’s all-around World Cup long-track champion, could become the second black athlete from any nation, following bobsledding’s Vonetta Flowers, to wear gold at a Winter Games.

Countdown to Turin: 66 days to go

Great story? Only chapter one.

Davis, who seems to relish his role as a contrarian, doesn’t settle for remarkable in single shots. He’s attempting something even more — choose your own adjective: brazen, foolhardy, bizarre or flat-out spectacular — qualifying for both the U.S. short-track and long-track Olympic teams.

This has never been done, and for good reason.

To the casual observer, the sports’ common elements — ice, skates, skin suits and an oval — make them appear quite similar. But they really have about as much in common, athletically, as hockey and ice dance.

Short track, run in the middle of a hockey rink, is all tight angles and short-radius turns. Athletes can, and usually do, make body contact. Blood on the ice isn’t a chant from lustful fans: It’s a frequent reality.

Long track, run on a long, narrow ice oval, is more like distance running; competitors race against the clock.

Davis’ 6-foot-2 body seems made for the straight, open courses of long-track ovals and almost out of place in the short-turn, low-center-of-gravity world of short track.

Turin tidbits It is revolutionary, creating an Olympic medal with a hole in the center. Resembling more an Olympic ring, Turin’s is the first Olympic medal since the modern movement began in 1896 that has deviated from the traditional solid disc. The hole is meant to represent the open space of an Italian piazza, or city square.

Eight people collaborate in the 10-hour process to make each medal. Some 1,026 medals will be made for the Olympics, plus 648 Paralympics medals and 35,000 commemorative medals. Dario Quatrini, who created the design, incorporated ideas and models from the Italian history and tradition of forms, rings and ancient coins.

Ohno, a returning medal favorite in short track, likens his friend’s quest to a champion road cyclist trying to medal in track cycling.

“It’s crazy,” Ohno says, with a chuckle. “It’s two different sports.” But he’s quick to add that if anyone can pull it off, it would be Davis, a “freak of nature” on the ice.

Why would anyone in their right mind want to set foot in the raucous, injury-inducing short-track arena when they’re the best in the world at long track?

“That’s his journey,” Ohno says.

The journey began in Chicago, and Davis’ first skates had wheels. His mom, Cherie, took 6-year-old Shani from the south side of Chicago to a roller rink on the north. He liked roller skating, mainly because the rink was fitted with a wealth of video games.

Alas, a problem arose: “A lot of people thought … I was very dangerous,” Davis says. “I was too fast. I was going to kill somebody, they would tell me.”

Solution: Put him on the ice where he can “be a real, true boy out there,” he recalls.

His dual skating personality was a simple function of seasons: All kids he knew would skate indoors during warmer months, then move outside, to bigger ice, when it froze. Hence, short and long track.

Calendar Friday-Saturday: Luge World Cup No. 4, Calgary, Alberta. Woodinville’s Christian Niccum expected to return to action after a concussion suffered in Italy in mid-November.

Friday-Sunday: Alpine ski women’s World Cup Super G, giant slalom, slalom, Aspen, Colo. Bellevue’s Libby Ludlow hopes to follow up a career-best 10th-place Super G finish at Lake Louise last week with another fast race in her only U.S. race of the year.

Friday-Sunday: Snowboard World Cup, Whistler, B.C.

Friday-Sunday: World Cup Long Track (all distances and pursuit), Torino, Italy.

Saturday-Sunday: World Cup men’s/women’s XC ski, Vernon, B.C.

Saturday-Sunday: Alpine ski men’s World Cup, Val d’Isere, France.

Saturday-Sunday: World Cup ski jumping, Steamboat Springs, Colo.

Sunday-Wednesday: U.S. Short Track Speedskating Championships, Marquette, Mich. One of Apolo Ohno’s last on-ice competitions before the Winter Games.

Sunday-Wednesday: World Cup men/women bobsled, Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy.

The dual roles are an advantage, allowing him to take a break from one sport and renew his competitive spirit in the other. To this day, he says, his double pursuit is simply his way of trying to unleash that little boy.

“When I was a kid, everything was pure,” he says, almost wistfully. “I just remember that little guy who would just go out on the ice and try to have fun.”

That, he insists, is what he keeps trying to remember when the court dates arise. Davis and several other athletes are locked in a battle with the sport’s governing body, U.S. Speedskating, over sponsorships — and just about everything else. His sponsorship deal with a European company conflicts with contracts the U.S. team has with its own sponsors, say federation officials, who note that the rules have always been clear.

The matter is still being litigated, and feelings run deep. America’s greatest speedskater has on occasions referred to his own sport’s governing body as “the enemy.” He trains primarily with hand-picked coaches in Calgary, Alberta, and pays his way — with the tab picked up by his sponsors — to World Cup events.

Today, his primary association with U.S. Speedskating is wearing the American colors on the medal stand — over and over and over, all around the globe.

Davis admits to being nearly obsessed with controlling his destiny, on the ice and off.

“It’s important to me, because in 2002 I had no say-so. I was ridiculed. My name was run through the mud. Ideally, for me, I can never be at anyone’s discretion [again].”

He grabbed control of his destiny the only way he could have — on the ice.

“[After] I won that world championship, there’s not too much anybody can say,” Davis says. “As long as I’m a fast skater, everything’s positive for me.”

Davis has two chances to prove it all once more this month, at the U.S. short-track championships Dec. 12-16 in Marquette, and the long track championships Dec. 27-31 in Salt Lake City.

He is realistic about the obstacles to becoming a two-sport Olympic athlete. He failed to qualify for the U.S. World Cup team in short track earlier this year, and admits that event scheduling and sheer pragmatism might preclude him from racing short track at the Olympics, even if he wins a team spot.

But that’s not entirely the point.

“It will be satisfying just making both teams — and saying that I had a choice, that I had a say-so.”

That, above all else, is the life lesson Davis says he’d like to get across — especially to inner-city kids normally exposed to African-American role models only in team sports, like basketball and football.

“I want to give them hope,” says Davis, who relishes chances to work with kids, and says he will consider teaching after his career. “I want to show them that it’s OK to try different things, to break away from that bubble.”

Or, put another way, to be unique. Even contrary.