Davis Does It His Way, and Makes History

By Mike Wise
Updated: February 19, 2006

The win by Shani Davis gives the U.S. men their third consecutive gold medal in the individual events at the Olympic oval. (Max Rossi - Reuters)

The win by Shani Davis gives the U.S. men their third consecutive gold medal in the individual events at the Olympic oval. (Max Rossi - Reuters)

TORINO– “Come on, Shani,” Reginald Shuck, his father, whispered from the stands. “Come on.” The swiftest of the 1,000-meter U.S. speedskaters rounded the final turn, pushing harder off each blade, moving like a blur around the large oval. Shani Davis kept pushing, toward gold — and more.

Chad Hedrick, Davis’ outspoken competitor more than a teammate, needed to be caught. Olympic history — never had a black man won gold at a Winter Games — needed to be claimed.

And Reginald Shuck needed to know there was some payoff for a 6-year-old boy taking up a sport almost no black children from Chicago do.

“I remember when he was little and nobody believed in his ability to do well at the sport,” Shuck said. “People didn’t take him seriously. This would be vindication for him.”

The clock read 1 minute 8.89 seconds, more than half a second better than Hedrick, who would finish sixth. Joey Cheek started blindingly quick but finished .27 seconds behind Davis, the lone wolf of the U.S. team — and new Olympic champion.

Davis became the first black athlete to capture a Winter Games gold medal in an individual sport. His victory came four years after Vonetta Flowers, the bobsledder from Alabama, made history at the 2002 Salt Lake Games as the first black athlete to win gold.

Cheek made it a 1-2 U.S. finish, completing his Olympic collection with a silver medal. He won a bronze at Salt Lake City in 2002 in the 1,000 meters and won gold in the 500 here last week, donating his $25,000 prize money from the U.S. Olympic Committee to Right To Play, the charity foundation of Norway speedskating legend Johan Olav Koss. He gave another $15,000 on Saturday night, lending some feel-good humanitarianism to an otherwise catty affair.

Davis’ victory quelled, for the moment, the unpatriotic talk after Davis opted to sit out of the team pursuit to concentrate on his specialty. Hedrick sniped at Davis afterward, saying he would have done whatever was best for the U.S. team, which finished fourth without Davis.

Essentially, Hedrick logged six more miles on ice two nights ago than Davis, whose motto since 2002 might as well have been: There is no team in speedskating, but there is an I.

“Chad wishes he could have motivated Shani to help him win the gold,” said Shuck. “But Shani has to take care of Shani. Because in the last Olympics, nobody took care of him.”

Davis was an alternate on the 2002 team but was not chosen to compete, and thereafter vowed he would never take a spot from a speedskater if he were concentrating on individual events.

In 2005, Davis’s athletic agreement was terminated by U.S. Speedskating for violating a sponsorship clause in his contract. Davis failed to remove the logo of a European sponsor from his racing suit and replace it with Qwest, which became the organization’s official sponsor that year. As a result of that dispute, Davis will not allow U.S. Speedskating to post his biography on its Web site.

No One Has a Story Like That of Shani Davis

Couresty of South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Returning home was always the hardest part. Shani Davis would be 8 or 10 or 12, the age Saturday’s dream actually began, and he’d get out of the car after practice, carrying his ice skates, wearing his speed skating tights.

The South Side of Chicago would welcome him.

“You wear tights, girl?”

“Is it Halloween?”

“What kind of black boy ice skates?”

Everyone has a story at the Olympics. You find that out quick. Just on the U.S. team in Saturday’s 1,000-meter race, Joey Cheek was a Harvard-wannabe who gave a $25,000 bonus from an earlier gold medal to a humanitarian group, and Chad Hedrick was a champion in-line skater who switched to speed skating watching the Salt Lake Olympics from Las Vegas.

But no one has a story like Shani Davis.

No one ever can, either. No one else will know how it feels to be the first black to win an individual gold medal at the Winter Games, beating the longest of odds, the rest of the world’s skaters and maybe the U.S. Speed Skating Association as well.

You can decide on that last point, if you want. It’s a spat that spits both ways, as you’ll see. But no one should let it detract from the bigger point: Davis has gone where no one has. He has won what no one before him had.

“I’m one of a kind,” said the black man, wearing the gold medal, in the sport that is blindingly white from the competitors to the ice.

So there’s race in his story. And there’s the race, the one Davis dominates today, the 1,000-meter sprint that he hasn’t lost at in nearly two years, setting the world record, making himself the king. But the previous two years matter little to an Olympic-only American audience. So there was some pressure.

He also made a controversial decision to back out of the U.S. team in Thursday’s relay race. He said it interfered with his 1,000-meter preparation. It also ruined the U.S. relay hopes for gold. So there was more pressure.

That’s why, as he crossed the finish line and saw he was the first skater to break the 69-second mark, he thrust both arms in the air. He then coasted down the backside, resting his hands on his head, his work done, his gold won.

“It showed that all the hard work and all the sacrifice paid off,” he said. “Kids in general, if you put your mind to it and you believe it, you can achieve it.

“You cannot give up – even if the road is a tough road.”

His road started at 2 1/2 on a Chicago roller-skating rink. His mother, Cherie, gave him quarters to skate fast. At 6, he switched to speed skating to follow the boss’s son of her mother, a legal assistant. At 8, he began running a mile before school to strengthen his legs. He wore a sweatshirt of U.S. skating legend Bonnie Blair to school, to his classmates’ laughter.

At 12, he told a skating buddy that he hoped to win the 1,000-meter race in the Olympics someday. This was in the Chicago of Michael Jordan’s Bulls and Da Bears. But a small clot of speed skaters existed, even black ones, though none white or black had Davis’s passion.

“I loved everything about it from the start,” he said.

As he sat here, talking with the medal around his neck, the surprise was more people weren’t happy for him. Or couldn’t be. Asked if he was happy for Davis, Hedrick, the winner of the 5,000-meter earlier these Olympics, said sharply, “I’m happy for Joey.”

You got responses like that Saturday. Some, like Hedrick, are upset about the relay decision. Others, like Blair, said they wouldn’t talk about Davis because his mother e-mailed her not to again. Reporters, officials, skating legends – many have been talked at Cherie Davis.

A divorced mother, she raised him on the sport. She pushed him. She drove him 90 minutes each way to Milwaukee as a teen for the best training. And now she and her son are feuding with the U.S. skating association over seemingly everything:

Sponsors. Endorsements. The contract athletes sign to receive stipends. Who pays for ice time if an athlete doesn’t sign the contract. On and on.

Asked what she would tell young black children about trying speed skating, Cherie Davis told Dutch television doing a documentary on her son, “Take up track and field.”

This isn’t a simple storyline, though. In that same documentary, after her son didn’t make the short-track Olympic skating team for these Games, Cherie Davis entered the locker room and said to him, “Someone’s going to see what a loser you are. “

“If you’re going to be negative, get out of here,” Shani said. “You think that makes me feel good, telling me I’m a loser?”

“I’m so sorry you let all the little kids beat you,” she said. “Maybe you should retire.”

“I can’t wait until the season’s over,” Shani said.

Does all this feuding add to his accomplishment? Present it from another angle? Or just get in the way of telling the what he did Saturday, beating odds no one has and winning the kind of gold no one can again.

“You can say anything about Shani that you want,” said Erben Wennemars, the Dutch bronze medallist. “But he did it his way and he won. So it was the right way.”

After winning, after a victory lap, he put on a Chicago White Sox cap. The South Side kid didn’t forget his roots. And he had the right answer to the taunting years ago.

“What kind of black boy ice skates?”

The world’s fastest one, it turns out