A former dump in the Chicago suburb, the hill served as a training ground – for sprints, for Davis’s character, and for the success that would come.
“No matter what I laid out for him … he always exceeded that by three, four, five hills,” says his first coach, Sanders Hicks. “That was exceptional to me because I’m used to skaters complaining.”
Davis’s outstanding career – only Eric Heiden has also won both overall and sprint world titles, says Hicks – has taken him to more than a dozen countries, from Hungary to Japan. It’s also taken him into a few holes with the media – most infamously, Stephen Colbert, who then staged a mock race-off with him at the Robert Crown Community Center rink where Davis grew up skating.
But folks at the rink say he’s still the kid – albeit a bit bigger now – who first showed up as a rambunctious 6-year-old, chasing all the kids around the track.
“Shani, to me, has remained the same type of person,” says rink manager Robert Lloyd, who says Davis comes back to train with the Evanston Speed Skating club anytime he’s in the country. “I’ve seen him grow into manhood, but he’s still the same.”
But when Davis comes back, there’s no fanfare – except maybe an excited shout from the first person to spot him after he tries to sneak in. Then the kids come running out of the hallways to jump on him, goof around, or get serious technique help on the ice.
“He’s like a pied piper, all the kids are hanging on him,” says Hicks, a local icon who was the community’s first black firefighter, then the first black fire department chief – then the coach of the first African-American to win an individual gold in the winter Olympics.
Celebrating at home
For journalist Bob Seidenberg of the local Pioneer Press, who has covered the community since the late 1980s, Davis is a rare elite athlete whose biggest delight is not winning medals but coming back home to celebrate them.
After the 2006 Games, where he won gold and silver, Davis returned for a little ceremony at the Evanston rink with the mayor and city council. Then he stayed late into the night to talk with every single one of 150 or 200 people – many of them kids – lined up to get his autograph, a photo, and that boyish smile he likes to flash when the media aren't watching.
“It was like this was the biggest moment for him,” says Seidenberg, who said there was no trace of an attitude that asks, 'Did my agent really agree to this?' ”
“You just saw how excited he was around kids. He’s like a kid himself – he has that pure exuberance that he must have had as a youngster,” says Seidenberg. “How many athletes at the top still have that?”
It’s not Davis’s hulking legs or physical technique, says long-time friend George Babicz, that set him apart – although even the finicky Dutch have praised his form as flawless.
It’s his mind that makes him unique, says Babicz, who now provides support for Team Davis.
“He wakes up every day thinking about how to improve himself, how to improve his skating,” says his friend. “He’s very self-critical, reviews his performance every time.”
While some have described the publicly aloof Davis as an island unto himself, with no formal coach, Babicz says he’s very good at assimilating the expertise of a wide range of people.
“Shani is very open to a lot of different sources to measure his skating with,” says Babicz. “He is kind of like the Jeddai – he thinks in a much more encompassing manner.”
But on weekends, he can think in a much more narrow way – playing video games with his friend. “Video games and Japanese candy – those are his two main off-ice hobbies,” laughs Babicz.
This weekend, though, Davis will be all business – competing against American rival and today’s bronze medalist Chad Hedrick in the 1,500m on Saturday.
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