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The Individual 2014 Olympic Quest of Shani Davis
By Arthur George and Gary Norris Gray
At the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, United States speedskater Shani Davis won the 1000 meter individual event, becoming the first black athlete from any nation to win a gold medal in an individual sport at the Winter Games. He also won a silver medal in the 1500 meter event.
At the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver he duplicated the feat, as the first man to successfully defend the 1000 meter gold medal, and repeating as 1500 meter silver medalist. Now, in 2014, Davis returns to the Olympics at Sochi, Russia. If he wins gold at Sochi, he will be the first male speed skater and the first U.S. male in any sport, to win in three different and consecutive Olympics. No one has ever made a three-peat gold in any speedskating distance in the Winter Games. Davis’ competitions would run on February 12 (1000 meters) and February 15 (1500 meters).
He holds the world record for the 1000 meters at 1:06.42 and the 1500 meters at 1:41.04. This season he has skated his fastest times since 2009, when he set those records. Davis’ path has been sometimes lonely, sometimes isolated, always individualistic.
He has been competing for 25 years, since the age of 6. He states that all he ever wanted to be was a fast skater, and that he was destined to be a speed skater.
At the Olympic trials in January, he anticipated Sochi.
“It’s my time. I’m going to try to take advantage of it and share myself and my story with the world as much as I can without it interfering with what I have to do.”
What he has to do is skate fast.
“What I Have To Do”
To do that, he trains without an individual coach, utilizing the input of various coaches and trainers as advisors, but otherwise works solo, creating his own workouts, taking his own counsel, listening to his body. He avoids training with other teammates.
After a history of clashes with U.S. Speedskating, the organization which largely controls the sport, he has prohibited his bio from appearing on the organization’s website. There are no photos of Davis there, amid the roster of other Olympians, at his request.
The problem with coaches, he says, is that they do not know, or understand, how he feels. Similarly, he says, no other teammates can help when a skater is on the ice against the clock. So he decided that if he was going to race on his own, he was going to train on his own.
“I don’t feel anyone really truly wants me to win more than I do.”
Prior to the 2006 Olympics, he trained in Canada, with Canadians, rather than with the U.S. team.
He has been concerned about practicing with teammates against whom he must compete.
“You’ve got to be careful how much you give away to certain people, because this is the way the sport is. You can pick up on someone’s technique.”
Davis has fashioned a training group for himself composed of elite skaters who are not his competitors. On a daily basis he creates workout programs, and compiles books of notes of his workouts.
He is fully responsible to himself, and for himself.
He says he has a great relationship to his body, and he tries to listen to it.
He doesn’t question his approach, and says he believes it has been key to the duration of his success over the years.
“I’m the main one that has to write and perform the workouts AND monitor myself to ensure that I’m progressing properly. I try to make the best plan for Shani.”
Body of Knowledge
Davis is known for his technical skills — the form of his turns are considered flawless — and after a groin injury last season, he has learned to be more careful with smaller muscle groups within his body. At 31, he is still performing at a top level.
He took gold in the 1000 meters at a World Cup meet in November.
His body requires extra maintenance now to run smoothly. He hydrates more often, cools down quicker after races and hops on a stationary bike whenever he has a chance.
He listens to, and converses with his body. He playfully states that his legs speak to him, saying “Shani, we’re hurting! Can you ease up a little bit? Slow down a bit?” ”
I have to say, ‘No! That’s why we train four to six hours a day!’ ”
Davis has altered his strategy for Sochi.
Rather than coming out fast at the beginning of a season, his plan is to build up gradually in each race, getting stronger on a daily basis to be ready for the Olympics.
He believes that with hours of practice each day, he’ll be ready for races lasting less than two minutes at the Olympics.
He used the World Sprint Speed Championships in January in Japan, as “practice, going through the steps of competing at a higher level and leading into Sochi.”
He again took a gold in the 1000 meters.
Cardio workouts, running on tracks and hills, weight training, road bicycling, and time on the ice fill his days. Videos of his training show him moving at an excruciatingly slow pace, loading his legs and building muscle and flexibility, simulating with subtle precision the movements of speed skating, almost as a pantomime, committing it all to memory.
The self-knowledge and self-possession are components of Davis’ self-contained approach to his sport.
Other skaters have said that the fact that Davis still trains largely on his own and determines his own regimen is both a reason for and result of his success. “It’s always amazed me how he does what he does without a coach,” said Eric Heiden, who won five speedskating gold medals at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics.
“To see Shani put all the puzzle pieces together, to train and deal with all the commotion that goes with being really successful, I scratch my head. I don’t know if there’s anybody who coaches himself at an elite level, in really any sport. It’s unusual that somebody can have that sort of feedback from their bodies, that they know how to put together a training program.”
One of his past coaches, Wisconsin-based Bob Fenn, flatly but sympathetically states “[It] isn’t the right thing. Dead wrong. Especially at this level, where there’s a fine tooth between victory and defeat. It tears me up inside to see him out there just by himself.”
Former Dutch Olympic champion Brad Veldkamp is more understanding.
“If you know yourself, you know what you need. But you have to have self-discipline and confidence. He’s the exception. He races himself, not others.”
Apolo Ohno, who won eight speedskating medals over three Olympiads, says he himself could not train or succeed with Davis’ method.
“He has no coach, no training program, no team behind him. He’s taking on guys with Tour de France budgets going for one or two races. If he had the right support group he could medal in every race.”
Ryan Shimabukuro, the head coach for the U.S. sprint skating team who has consulted with Davis, states that the skater is less of a “lone wolf” now, as he has become more aware of the up-and-coming talented competition around him. Shimabukuro says Davis is a favorite for Sochi success, but there are many other favorites as well. Davis says he is now the “big brother” to younger skaters. At his first Olympiad in 2002, he was 18, and was the “younger guy beating up on older guys.
Now, at 31, I’m the older guy trying to stop the younger guys trying to beat up on me.”
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