Shani Davis, forgotten American superstar, seeks historic speedskating gold

Shani Davis is perhaps the most transcendent American athlete at the Sochi Olympics but has often been viewed with ambivalence at home. Will his pursuit of history Wednesday change that?

By , Staff writer

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    Shani Davis of the US looks up at the screen to see his performance timing after the second heat of the men's 500-meter speedskating race at the Adler Arena Skating Center during the 2014 Winter Olympics Monday in Sochi, Russia. He'll skate in his best race, the 1,000 meters, Wednesday.
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[UPDATE: Shani Davis finished 8th in the 1,000 meter sprint Wednesday in Sochi. The event was won by Stefan Groothuis of The Netherlands.]

A day after Shaun White failed to win his third consecutive gold medal in the Olympic men's halfpipe competition, another American Olympian will attempt the same feat with significantly less fanfare.

Perhaps that is the way speed skater Shani Davis likes it. He trains on his own. Remarkably, he is his own coach and finds his own sponsors. And he has never skated in the team event at the Olympics. His biography isn't even on the US speedskating website.

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In some ways, White is the same, with other American riders saying they barely see him. Yet White, as a master of self-promotion, has willingly and enthusiastically spun himself into an Olympic cottage industry – the spunky skateboarder and surfer who straps on a board to win gold for the US every four years. Davis, meanwhile, has often given the impression that he couldn't care less what Americans think of him.

Yet Wednesday, as Davis attempts to become the first speed skater in the history of the Olympic Games to win the same event three times (the 1,000 meters), there is the sense that Davis's sometimes prickly persona has had a cost. In this Olympics, where Americans are searching for that transcendent athlete to be their face of Sochi, perhaps their single greatest athlete has been almost an afterthought.

There is no doubt that American Olympians come packaged in a certain way, and for much of his career, Davis has not fit the type. Despite his unusual backstory as the first black medalist in Winter Olympics history, he's had little interest in telling it. In a recent Reuters interview, he said: "When I'm asked my 'race,' I always reply: 1,000 meters."

And that is the essence of Davis. He comes to the Olympics to skate, and if that's not enough to get you excited, then tough.

Given the lack of buildup to the 1,000 meters, it would appear that has not been enough. By the end of the Sochi Games, Davis could be the most decorated Olympian in America's long and distinguished long track speedskating history – a history that includes Eric Heiden and Bonnie Blair. But he has received only a fraction of the coverage that once followed Dan Jansen, whose solitary Olympic medal became a tearful and heartfelt saga over four Winter Games.

The image of Davis in America has been shaped by those same forces, but in his case, negatively. Davis is not known for his driving turns, which make speedskating enthusiasts melt into superlatives, nor for for his near-maniacal passion for his craft, which includes Peyton Manning-like note-taking on practice lap times and meals. Instead, he's known for his feud with teammate Chad Hedrick in 2006, when he refused to participate in the team pursuit. When he talked to NBC that year, he came across as aloof, even antagonizing.

Last week, he was one of the few US athletes to skip talking to the media at the United States Olympic Committee's pre-Olympic press conferences.

That means Davis's speedskating legacy has gone largely untold in America. He holds the world records in 1,000 and 1,500 meters. He has won more World Cup races (57) than any other racer in history except Canadian Jeremy Wotherspoon. And he's won 92 World Cup medals, second only to Jansen's 104 among Americans.

Indeed, both Jansen and Davis highlight how radically different American speed skaters can be viewed at home versus abroad. Jansen, who is known only for his repeated failure to win Olympic medals amid tragedy, "is like a god" in Noway, says David Wallechinsky, author of "The Complete Guide to the Winter Olympics."

For his part, Davis is possibly the most popular and famous speed skater on the planet today. So far in Sochi, the Dutch have swept every men's speedskating medal (in the 5,000 and 500 meters). But they have a special place in their heart for Davis. 

"We always want to win, but if we have to lose, better to lose to him, because of his personality and the way he appeals to the Dutch crowd," says John van Vliet, a press attaché for the Dutch team.

Indeed, to van Vliet, Davis is the quintessential American Olympian. "What we like in him is that he suits the image of the old-time American Olympian, being sure of himself, being cool, looking cool."

In other words, to the Dutch, Davis is Shaun White times 10. And the difference in perception is obvious: To the Dutch, speedskating is as big as football or baseball. And to Davis, the Dutch don't care about his backstory, they only care that he skates really fast. The result is that, among the Dutch press, Davis is respected, even loved, and the feeling is mutual.

"I like him a lot," says Marcel Maijer of the Dutch TV channel RTL. "He's a very nice guy, and a fantastic skater. He really appeals to me as a sportsman."

In the Olympic Village in Sochi, Maijer notes, Davis saw the Dutch press and circled back around on his bicycle just to talk to them.

Perhaps not surprisingly, most of Davis's self-negotiated sponsorships have been with Dutch companies.

Yet there are signs that Davis is beginning to make more of an effort to relate to American audiences. He said at the US trials that he will make himself available for the team event for the first time. If he can win medals in the 1,000, the 1,500, and the team pursuit – which looks possible, perhaps even probable – then he'll have won seven Olympic medals in his career, one more than Blair. (He won silver in the 1,500 in Turin and Vancouver.)

He even has added some top American companies to his sponsorship list, including McDonald's and United Airlines.

"I think finally Shani Davis is understanding that this is what the total package of becoming a champion is all about," says Apolo Anton Ohno, a close friend and a former Olympic gold medalist in short track. "It's not just results, but everything that comes along with it."

If he has, he could become the American face of the Sochi Games yet.

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