Shani Davis Back On The Right Track

By Greg Couch
Updated: February 8, 2006

TURIN, Italy — So he has finally gotten here. Shani Davis is an Olympian. Sure, he was an Olympian, technically, four years ago in Salt Lake City. But the Chicago native got there under suspicions and accusations. And he was an alternate and never actually did compete.

“I didn’t even consider myself an Olympian,” he said. “One day I was a hero, the next day I was a cheater.”

Now, back to the hero part. Davis arrives for the Turin Olympics, which start with the opening ceremony Friday, as a gold-medal favorite in the 1,500-meter long-track speedskating event. The entire U.S. team, in all sports combined, is hoping to win 20 medals. Davis has a real shot to win multiple medals himself.

Finally. And now, so much is behind him. He was an urban black kid in a suburban white sport. He, and particularly his mother, Cherie, were in constant battles with the U.S. Speedskating Association. He was made to feel like a cheater during Olympic trials four years ago, even though no one actually accused him of anything.

And since then, it has been four more years of battles and angst and distrust. And winning, of course. Lots of winning. Davis has broken world records and set himself up as a big-time candidate for Olympic hype. He is trying to become the first African American to win an individual Winter Olympics gold medal and just the second to win one at all. Bobsledder Vonetta Flowers won gold at Salt Lake.

Skating all that matters now

“It just opens the eyes of everyone because someone’s doing something different that they don’t see every day,” Davis said recently at a U.S. Olympic athlete summit for the media. “I’m just showing them that stepping outside of that bubble is OK.”

He arrives in Turin on top, a 23-year-old star. No more doubt, at least not for the weeks of the Games. Now, it’s all about the sport. Davis has fought through the most difficult of paths, through political tangles, to get here because of his ability to concentrate on the purity of the sport.

His mother dealt with the other stuff.

And she has dealt with it furiously. Within the skating world, her e-mails to the sport’s officials, to other skaters, to reporters, are legendary for their ferocity. And while some people consider her a pain, others see her only as a loving mother, alert to every possible slight against her child.

It started in Hyde Park

Love her or not, most people would agree that without her energetic support and defense, it is unlikely Davis would be here today. She has shielded Davis from issues and allowed him to continue to just skate. He is known to have an incredible work ethic.

Cherie Davis declined to talk for this story, saying, “I have decided not to give any more interviews.”

“She fights them almost every day,” Davis said. “They [U.S. Speedskating officials] don’t want it to grow in a way where they have five or six Shani Davises with mothers like Cherie Davis.”

Davis and his mother lived in Hyde Park when he was little. When he was 2-1/2, she started to take him to a roller-skating rink, where he would skate as hard and fast as he could, churning out of control to get around the track enough times to satisfy his mother as fast as he could. The goal then was not to be an Olympic skater, but rather to get quarters from Cherie so he could play video games.

“I was always trying to barter to get those quarters,” he said.

He still plays.

It was only coincidence that Davis got into ice skating. Cherie was working as a legal assistant to local attorney Fred Benjamin, who happens to be a longtime skating official. When he asked her to type up minutes from a U.S. Speedskating meeting one day, she asked him about the sport. Benjamin directed her to a skating club in Evanston, which had several black members.

At the time, Cherie told the Sun-Times a few months ago, she had no idea that speedskating had been predominantly a white person’s sport. This is what she thought: “So this is what black kids in the suburbs do.”

Davis’ friends were not accepting of his sport. They idolized Michael Jordan and Walter Payton, he said, and thought he should be playing basketball or football.

“I brought home a trophy with a statue of someone in skating position,” he said at the U.S. short track championships, “and my friends were saying, ‘What’s that? Figure skating? You do what girls do? You wear tights?”’

Eventually, the Davises moved to Rogers Park, where Cherie still lives, to be closer to Evanston. Davis now lives in Calgary, where he trains away from U.S. Speedskating people, but comes back to Chicago for two months a year.

The rift between U.S. Speedskating and Davis is hard to pinpoint. The biggest problem now is a sponsorship issue. Davis found a personal sponsor in Dutch bank DSB and competed with its logo on his uniform. In the Netherlands, Davis and speedskating are immensely popular. He cannot walk down the street there without being swarmed by kids. He feels responsible to them as a role model, and makes a habit of signing lots of autographs.

Logo at heart of dispute

The U.S. team wanted him to remove the DSB logo in favor of one from the team’s sponsor, Qwest. A dispute ensued over the wording of the rules. And U.S. Speedskating dropped Davis’ funding for training and competing.

While that probably was the biggest problem between skater and federation, it hardly was the first. Through the years, the federation and Cherie Davis have been fighting constantly, often over who should have control of his career.

The bickering spilled over four years ago, actually leading to Davis’ first moment in the mainstream sports world. Speedskating in the United States has mainstream popularity only around the time of the Olympics.

Davis needed to win the final short-track race of the 2002 trials to make the team. He did win, beating heavily favored Apolo Ohno, who reportedly seemed to slow down at the end. With Davis on the team, Tom O’Hare was off. O’Hare then filed a complaint accusing Ohno, a close friend of Davis’, of conspiring with skater Rusty Smith to fix the race so Davis would win.

Self-promotion not his thing

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Ohno told federation officials he had slowed down so as not to risk injury. He already was on the Olympic team. O’Hare dropped his charge. No one had accused Davis of having anything to do with it, but “I was ridiculed for my performance,” he said. “My name was run through the mud.”

He felt that U.S. Speedskating should have done more to defend him publicly.

Distrust aside, Davis and U.S. Speedskating arrive in Turin together. And if Davis wins gold, they are going to look like the best of friends.

Davis had a chance to be the Games’ most promoted American athlete, but skier Bode Miller, loaded with controversial statements, has won the marketing battle. Davis isn’t inclined to self-promote.

His story was diminished some, too, when he failed to make the short-track team. He was trying to become the first speedskater to compete in both sports in the same Olympics. He barely missed.

And if that means less fame for Davis, it actually might be a blessing. Long track and short track are entirely separate sports, with different training routines, different equipment and different skills. Had he skated in both sports in Turin, he might have worn out. He also would have faced a logistical disaster, trying to go back and forth between venues on a tight schedule.

While he is a gold-medal candidate in long track, he’s not quite to that level in short track. Skating short track, then, might have endangered the medals he has a good chance to win in long track.

Either way, he is here now, a hero again, and no one is calling him a cheater, and no one is making fun of his tights. The politics, fighting and aggravation are pushed aside, at least for now. It’s just a man and the ice.

And probably some medals.