SOCHI, Russia -- Outside the international speedskating community, where he is revered as the Michael Jordan of his sport and has left a slew of vanquished opponents, podium finishes and world records in his wake, Shani Davis has really never gotten his due.
Thousands of cars pass the Pettit National Ice Center on I-94 every day, their occupants oblivious to the great athlete who has trained for more than a decade on its 400-meter oval.
Speedskating's tiny toehold in the American sporting consciousness is partly to blame. Only three U.S. skaters have transcended their sport to become household names. Eric Heiden had to win five gold medals in one Winter Olympics to do it. Dan Jansen had to overcome tragedy and heartache. Bonnie Blair had to win just about every time she laced up her skates.
For most other speedskaters who won medals at the Olympics, fame was fleeting. Baseball's spring training, after all, was days away.
But in Sochi, at the XXII Winter Games, Davis finally has a chance to join the pantheon of Olympic icons whose notoriety is commensurate with their accomplishments.
If he does what he came here to do, he will leave Russia as the most decorated U.S. male long-track skater in history and at long last will have a chance to cash in on a level of marketability he should have enjoyed long ago.
"He's the best skater, in my opinion, to ever put long-track speedskates on," said Apolo Anton Ohno, the retired short-track legend and one of Davis' best friends.
"In my opinion he's one of the greatest skaters of modern-day speedskating, since the invention of the clap skate and indoor skating," said Brian Hansen, who trains with Davis at the Pettit Center. "There's no one else in the world that's rivaled what he's done as far as versatility."
Davis' first race is the 500 meters Monday. It's the only long-track event in which competitors skate the distance twice, but Davis might opt out of the second 500 because the race is really just a tune-up for his "babies," the 1,000 on Wednesday and the 1,500 on Saturday.
Davis, 31, is the two-time Olympic champion in the 1,000 and has a chance for a historic three-peat. A victory would make him the first man in his sport to win the same race in three different (and consecutive) Olympics.
He owns not only the world record in the race (1 minute 6.42 seconds) but the 10 fastest times ever skated at sea level. And he arrived in Sochi in top form, having won four of six 1,000-meter races on the international circuit this season, including an impressive victory at the World Sprint Championships in Japan last month.
"I have him picked automatic gold in the 1,000," Ohno said.
The 1,500 is a bigger challenge. Though Davis also holds the world record in that race (1:41.04), he had to settle for the silver medal in 2006 and again in 2010.
"Gold would be the big dream come true in the 1,500 meters race," Davis said. "I love that race so much because when I was a junior it was the first junior world race I won. I got my first international prize money and my first international ranking in the 1,500.
"I've always kind of been the favorite to win it but somehow, some way it evades me at the Olympics. It just gives me that much more motivation."
He also is eligible to compete in the team pursuit, Feb. 21-22. Coaches select the three-skater squad, and Davis certainly will be asked to participate. He helped lead the U.S. team to its only World Championships victory in 2011 but has never skated team pursuit in the Olympics.
In 2006 and 2010, he said he didn't want the race to interfere with his preparations for the 1,000 and 1,500; some thought the fact rival Chad Hedrick was on the team factored into his decision. Hedrick is now retired.
Asked at the U.S. trials in December if he would skate the team pursuit in Sochi, Davis said, "Yeah, sure. Why not?"
Medals in three races would give him seven in his Olympic career. Blair won six medals (five gold) and Heiden retired after his five-gold performance in 1980.
But it's not just the medals and world records that make Davis' story so compelling. He has blazed a pioneering ice trail as an African-American from the south side of Chicago, dominating a sport that has seen precious few athletes of color.
Davis is cognizant of his status as a role model but only rarely has opened up about discrimination he faced in his early days in the sport. In fact, though he has worked hard in recent years to become more media-friendly and accommodating, he rarely has opened up about his life in general.
"You haven't heard his real story, his whole big story," Ohno said cryptically. "When he's ready to tell it, he'll tell it."
A lone wolf by nature, or perhaps by choice, Davis has ascended to the top on the strength of his tremendous drive and competitiveness, coupled with talent and a unique training regimen.
For years, he has kept a daily log of training minutiae -- everything from lap times to how he felt physically and mentally during workouts to what he ate for breakfast. He has graduated from pen and notebooks to an iPad, but his commitment to record anything and everything that affects his skating has never wavered.
When it comes to coaching and training partners, Davis stands apart from his contemporaries. He has worked with various coaches over the years, most consistently with Milwaukee's Bob Fenn, but he is mostly self-coached and doesn't rely on other skaters to help him train.
"I mean, he does things that don't make sense," Ohno said. "The guy has no coach. Trust me. I've known the guy for a long, long time. He trains solo. He says, 'Today, I need to work on speed. Tomorrow, I'm going to do a little bit of endurance and the next day I'm going to do some strength, then I'm going to take it easy.' Who does that? I could never do that.
"Bob gives him his input and Shani either takes it or doesn't take it, depending on how he feels. Bob will give lap times in the corner. But if Bob was not there, Shani would not ask for him to be there."
Davis is friendly with his teammates, whom he encourages and helps and who genuinely admire him. He has a 6-year-old son, Ayiz, and adores children, who are drawn to his magnetic personality.
"He is very charismatic," Hansen said. "He's an exciting person to be around."
Away from the rink, though, it hasn't always been smooth sailing for Davis.
Early in his career, he squabbled with U.S. Speedskating over sponsorship and other issues and had a notable dust-up with Hedrick in Turin, where he won gold and silver but stormed out of a post-race news conference and left many Americans with an unfavorable impression after a tense interview with NBC.
Along the way, Davis has matured and has come to not only accept but to relish his role as the face of U.S. Speedskating.
"I really accept the role that I have now," he said. "I embrace it. I'm happy and proud that I'm in the position I'm in because a few years ago I wasn't. Here I am now, I'm doing better than ever skating-wise, media-wise, teammate-wise. Everything is positive. And I am so happy things are positive."
Davis is comfortable these days in his own skin, not just his skin suit. He shot a handful of commercials in Milwaukee before leaving for the Games and his list of sponsors has grown to include McDonald's, AT&T, United, Ralph Lauren and Deloitte.
"To be a true champion, he's going to have to learn how to deal with those things," Ohno said. "Because whether he likes it or not, they're going to come with the territory. And I think finally Shani Davis is understanding that this is what the total package of becoming a champion is all about. It's not just results, but everything that comes along with it."
Asked at the U.S. trials if Sochi would be his final Olympics, Davis was noncommittal, and some jumped to the conclusion that he wouldn't stick around for the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea. But it's hard to believe he would walk away. Skating fast is his passion and life's work.
And, besides, there are still records to be broken.
Davis ranks third all-time in total World Cup points and has won 57 World Cup races, second only to the 67 won by Canadian sprinter Jeremy Wotherspoon. Among U.S. men, Davis' 92 World Cup medals are second only to Jansen's 104.
"I want to compete against these guys until the competitive fire inside of me goes away," he said. "As long as I still have that drive to be the best and I train to be the best, you'll see me out here skating."
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