Olympics / Sports

Now an elder statesman, Shani Davis still on top

KEARNS, Utah -- A smiling Shani Davis complimented his teammates. He toyed with a question about joining "Dancing with the Stars." He playfully responded to a question about what his legs tell him in races.

"They say, 'Shani, we're hurting! Can you ease up a little bit? Slow down a bit?'" the long-track speedskater told reporters. "I have to say, 'No! That's why we train four to six hour a day!' "

The exchange during speedskating's recent Olympic trials was something of a departure from the rest of his successful yet sometimes controversial career. He often would ignore or spar with the media. Other times he feuded with teammates, most famously five-time Olympic medalist Chad Hedrick. He and the sport's governing body never really have gotten along.

So was this a new Shani Davis?

"We've always wanted to see Shani grow," said Apolo Ohno, his friend and the most decorated U.S. Winter Olympian. "Finally, Shani Davis is understanding that this is what the total package of becoming a champion is all about -- not just results, but everything that comes along with it."

A star during the last two Olympics, collecting four medals, the 31-year-old Chicago native finally is embracing such a role as he prepares for the upcoming Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. Still, he's an aging star in his sport and his body requires extra maintenance to run smoothly. A father of a 6-year-old boy, he offers advice to younger skaters who hope to take his spot on the podium.

"It's my time," said Davis, who was raised in Evanston and began skating when he was 6. "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."

Davis remains dominant, and if he wins the 1,000 meters at Sochi, he will be the first American man to win gold medals in the same event in three consecutive Winter Games. At the Olympic trials, he won the 1,000 and 1,500 and qualified for the 500. During the current World Cup season, he has won three 1,000-meter races in four tries and stands 10 medals shy of the all-time record.

"Any time I step out on the ice and I put my hood on, I have something to prove to whoever's watching," said Davis, who also has two Olympic silver medals in the 1,500.

Meanwhile, headed into Sunday's final two races at the World Spring Championships in Japan, Davis has put himself in position to win an overall medal for the fourth time.

Davis is known for his technical skills -- his turns are considered tops -- and after a groin injury last season, he has learned to be more careful with his body. He hydrates more often, cools down quicker after races and hops on a stationary bike whenever he has a chance.

Davis still trains largely on his own and determines his own regimen, which other skaters have said is both a reason for and result of his success.

"The guy has no coach," Ohno said. "He trains solo. He says, 'Today I need to work on speed, tomorrow I'm going to do a little bit endurance. The next day I'm going to strength, I'm going to take it easy the following day.' Who does that? I couldn't ever do that."

Still, younger skaters are closing in, with some of his friends serving as his stiffest competition. When he won the 1,000 meters at the trials, he crossed the finish line a hundredth of a second ahead of 23-year-old Brian Hansen of Glenview.

Hansen, coming off his strongest World Cup season, grew up idolizing Davis but wants an individual medal of his own.

"I'm happy that (Davis) has his high achievements and goals, but at the same time I will try to beat him if I can," said Hansen, a 2010 silver medalist in team pursuit.

Davis, the oldest skater on the U.S. men's team, relishes his role as an elder statesman who competes against his teammates on the ice and is friends with them off of it.

"Those guys are getting stronger and stronger every day," he said. "Now I know what it feels like to be the old man on the hill."

Some have said the team Davis is anchoring is the most talented since the 2002 group in Salt Lake City that won eight medals, including five on the men's side. Davis said part of the success stems from team chemistry.

"It's pushing us to another level," he said. "We know we can't necessarily do it alone the way we used to do it in the past."

But if team chemistry was lacking on earlier teams, Davis contributed to it.

His reputation suffered after the 2002 Olympic trials when short-track skaters were accused of conspiring to ensure Davis made the short-track team. At another time, he chose to wear his own sponsor logo on his uniform instead of the federation's official sponsor. And he never has participated in the team pursuit, choosing instead to focus on his events.

Throughout the turbulence was his mother, Cherie, who raised Davis as a single mom and served as both protector and manager. She infamously has accused critics of racism and sent threatening emails to skaters, coaches and media. She fought endlessly with the sport's national governing body, US Speedskating, over financial support, sponsorships and fines.

Skaters would stay silent out of fear of retaliation.

"We don't know how to speak to Shani, so we keep to ourselves," Olympic medalist Jennifer Rodriguez told the Tribune in 2005. "It's a shame. He is a nice kid."

His most publicized rivalry involved Hedrick, a swaggering Texan who found instant success after converting from inline skating. When Davis chose not to skate the team pursuit, Hedrick publicly called him out for his decision. Then there was the bizarre news conference in 2006 in Turin when the two sat a few feet from each other, not once making eye contact.

Davis' relationship with US Speedskating remains frosty -- he still prohibits his biography on its website and finds his own sponsors -- but it hardly matters. He enjoys incredible popularity overseas in places such as the Netherlands.

Davis said his life is headed in the right direction. He is featured in McDonald's commercials and promotional material on NBC. During the trials, his two chatty media appearances lasted more than 12 minutes.

He even plans to compete in team pursuit in these Games as he has practiced weekly in Milwaukee with Hansen and others.

He even shrugged off a question about whether he would compete in the event.

"Yeah, sure," he said. "Why not?"

Olympic gold medalist Dan Jansen said Davis appears to be embracing his role as a face of American speedskating.

"He's putting a positive foot forward this year, and he's trying to get his personality out there," said Jansen, now an NBC broadcaster. "I think it's a good thing."

He may try to extend his career through the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea as more than a dozen skaters and coaches have told the Tribune in recent weeks.

He will be 35 then, and only six skaters that old have won Olympic medals. That includes two men, most recently Rintje Ritsma of the Netherlands when he was 36 in 2006.

"I want to compete against these guys until my competitive fire goes away," Davis said. "As long as I still have that drive to be the best and train to be the best I'll continue skating."

(c)2014 Chicago Tribune

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