For two speed skaters, different paths to Games

At a press conference held in the last days before the Olympics began, speed skaters Chad Hedrick and Shani Davis took their seats before the media at the opposite ends of a long banquet table - in the same room but completely different worlds.

There was Hedrick, utterly at ease, leaning back in his chair as if it were a porch swing, while only a few feet away, Davis seemed to be measuring each sentence with a sliderule - offering only enough words to answer each question.

Since that day, they have separated themselves a little further in the American mind, with Hedrick agreeing to skate in the new two-night team event, which begins Wednesday night, in a quest for five gold medals, while Davis declined. Yet long before the Olympics came to Turin, they were well established as American speed skating's curiously mismatched bookends.

Hedrick is the loudmouthed Texan with the Han Solo smile - the greatest champion in the history of inline skating, who decided to turn to the ice while watching the Salt Lake Games at a casino in Las Vegas. Davis is the publicly sulky superstar from the South Side of Chicago, who has repeatedly clashed with the American speed-skating establishment, but is so talented that he nearly qualified for the Olympic short-track team, too.

Together, however, they make up perhaps the most formidable twosome in world speed skating, and they lead America's Golden Generation - a men's team that is a virtual lock to win a medal in every individual event.

"This team has the potential to win more medals and have more success than the one in Salt Lake," says former speed skater Eric Heiden, the only athlete to win five gold medals in a winter Games. "We should see at least one man on the podium with every race, and that's being conservative."

For the record, Hedrick and Davis have no grudge against each other. Quite the opposite, Hedrick has hinted that he might like to train with Davis someday - a suggestion that Davis doused: "What I feel is best for me is what I am doing right now."

Later, addressing his decision not to join the team relay to support Hedrick's chance for five gold medals, he said: "I'll be pretty upset if people get upset with my decision to do what's best for me."

To a country longing for the esprit de corps so often associated with the Olympic Games, Davis can at times sound selfish. But Hedrick, for one, doesn't necessarily see it that way. "I didn't train 28 years of my life for the team event," he said after he won gold in the 5,000 meters.

Moreover, for Davis, the notion of "team" has always been as slippery as a fresh sheet of ice. When he did make the short-track squad as an alternate in 2002, several teammates alleged that friend Apolo Anton Ohno threw the last trial race so Davis could win - a charge that was later dropped. In long track, a feud between his mother and the US speedskating organization about what she perceives as a lack of support for her son - as well as the racism Davis says he endured throughout the sport as the first elite black speed skater - has only made Davis more of an outsider.

Asked if he could change one thing about the sport, he responds: "I would make it more of an individual sport," he said in the press conference. "Skating is really individual, but we're sold as a package."

It was an individual pursuit growing up on the South Side of Chicago, where everyone would "throw a ball or shoot baskets." At first, it was the lure of Space Invaders. "Roller rinks always had video games," he says. "But I had to skate first, so I'd skate as fast as I could so I could play the video games."

Now, he's moved on to the Olympic Games, and even the Dutch fans - the most knowledgeable and fickle in the speed-skating world - purr with praise. "Technically, he's one of the best skaters ever," coos the orange-clad Bas Hollenberg at the Olympic oval. "The way he rides the corners - it's beautiful."

The lithe stride of Davis's high- compression corners is a remnant of his training in short-track, where skaters take sharp turns at top speeds - all while fending off the melee of bumps and blades. "He has a very good feel for the ice," says Heiden. "He can do things on the ice that most people can't."

Meanwhile, the peculiar "double push" of Hedrick's skating is a legacy of his inline days, and for some time, speed skaters wanted to laugh at it more than emulate it. Though invisible to the untrained eye, Hedrick uses both feet to push during the beginning of each stride. It gives him extra power but is akin to spray-painting his initials across the tablet of refined techniques that, speed-skating purists sniff, are the "perfect form."

With the double push, though, Hedrick "was just like a revelation" on the inline circuit, says Robert Burnson, editor of Inline Planet. "It changed everything.... He took [inline] speed skating to a whole new level."

Yet he was ready for a new challenge by 2002. And that is when he saw his friend and former inline opponent, Derek Parra, winning a gold medal in Salt Lake. The rest of the night, he says, was a blur. Nothing else was in his head but what he saw on TV, and what he knew he needed to do now. And in only three years on the ice, he has been a revelation there, as well.

"We don't know what I'm doing right and what I'm doing wrong because it's never been done before," says Hedrick.

Adds Parra, now his teammate: "He is the exception to every rule I've ever been taught: Get lots of sleep, eat right, hit the weights." Hedrick wears the moniker like a name tag: The Exception. "Maybe I stay out a little too late. Maybe I don't do as much plyometric [weight training] as other people. But out on the track, I work harder than anyone," he says.

This attribute makes his push to pile up gold medals like Lincoln Logs possible. "He is a fighter," says Parra.

Winning five gold medals was as much a mental strain as a physical one, Heiden adds: "You have to be very focused, and that's what takes it out of you."

Outside the confines of his own head, though, Hedrick's biggest challenge could come from Davis himself, who holds the world record in the 1,000 meters. Yet perhaps that's as it should be. In the final race of the 10,000-meter Olympic trials, Hedrick and Davis had already clinched their spots on the team and were preparing to work on technique. Then they were drawn to race in the same heat.

"Once we realized that, it was like, 'Forget the technique, let's race!' " Hedrick says.

On that day, Hedrick won. This Saturday, in his favorite, 1,000 meters, Davis will get another shot.

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