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Shani Davis skates for his legacy, Olympic history

Mark Starr | 2/13/2014, 6:01 a.m.
Olympic speed skater Shani Davis, the first African American athlete to win an individual gold medal at the Winter Olympics, goes for history during the Sochi games as he tries to become the most medalled U.S. speed skater and the first male to win the same event in three straight Olympics in almost a century. TeamUSA.org

But the breach didn’t slow Davis down. Four years later, at Vancouver 2010, Davis again won gold in the 1,000 meters, the first man ever to defend that title, as well as second silver in the 1,500.

But with the passage of time, Davis’ achievements have moved to the fore while the controversies have receded. In Sochi, Davis is chasing history, and the stage is set for him to skate into the pantheon of U.S. Winter Olympians. Another victory at 1,000 meters would make him the first male to pull off a Winter Olympic three-peat since the 1920s. Moreover, if Davis wins one more medal, he will tie the legendary Eric Heiden for most Olympic medals by a U.S. male speed skater. And with a second medal, he would join Bonnie Blair at the top of the U.S. speed-skating medal chart.

Davis, a Chicagoan, was ushered into the sport at age 6 after he was too fast for a local roller-skating rink to contain. “I did not want to be a champion growing up, just a fast skater,” is the quote he showcases on his personal website. At 6 feet 2 and 185 pounds, Davis circles the rink with a powerful stride, and he has an extraordinary ability to ignore all distractions and deliver peak performance in the biggest races.

“Being born and raised in Chicago made me tough,” he recently told NBC’s Today show. “It made me strong. I feel like I can deal with anything.”

In the run-up to Sochi, Davis has ventured a toe, perhaps even a whole foot, back into the public arena by granting more interviews. He views himself as not nearly as complicated as he has appeared to others, just a regular Chicago guy, one who roots for “da Bears” and the rest of the city’s sports teams and who couldn’t survive without regular infusions of the city’s signature deep-dish pizza. About the most controversial thing he’s revealed about himself is that he is strictly a Giordano’s pizza man, which might offend fellow Chicagoans who swear by Gino’s, Lou Malnati’s or any of the other contenders for top pizza honors.

The American mainstream press has never been entirely comfortable with “difference” of any kind in the athletes it covers. At the very least, Davis is due a reassessment of his career. Individualism isn’t the same thing as selfishness. Had Davis been all about himself, he would have skated those relays and, in all likelihood, would already stand atop the U.S. Olympic speed-skating medal chart. It seems that Davis, the man, is really that same kid who cared less about the medals than about skating fast.

And he has gone faster — and faster for longer — than even he could have imagined. In doing so, he has blazed a pioneering Olympic trail with gold and silver — not just for himself, but for all black athletes on roads less taken, for the sport of speed skating and for his country.

UPDATE: Since this article was published in the Banner newspaper on Wednesday, Shane has lost his bid for a medal for a third consecutive Olympics. His shot at Olympic history ended Wednesday when Stefan Groothuis won gold for the Netherlands in the 1,000. We applaud his efforts.

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