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Shani Davis focused on making Olympic history

SOCHI, Russia -- Shani Davis has won two Olympic speedskating gold medals in the 1,000 meters, but crossing the finish line quicker than anyone else is as thrilling as ever for the 31-year-old Chicago native.

"There's nothing that tops that feeling, being on the top of that podium, having a medal go around your neck," he said Monday. "It's just a tremendous feeling. That's what I strive for. Hopefully I can fill my hunger on Wednesday."

That's when Davis skates the event in Sochi. If he wins gold, he will become the first American man to win the same event in three straight Winter Olympics.

No American man in his sport has come close to such a feat.

Joey Cheek took bronze in the 1,000 in 2002 and silver in 2006.

Eric Heiden, whose five gold medals in his second Games in Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1980 are considered the sport's standard, stopped competing shortly afterward.

And Dan Jansen, the other U.S. male speedskater with a household name, won his only gold medal in the 1,000 in 1994.

A victory could elevate Davis -- whose 57 World Cup medals are 10 shy of the all-time record -- as perhaps his sport's greatest competitor. Three men have reached the Olympic podium three Games in a row at any distance but didn't always win gold. Russia's Yevgeny Grishin came closest but failed to complete the hat trick in 1964.

Two female speedskaters have reached golden glory in three straight Games -- Bonnie Blair of Champaign, Ill., and Germany's Claudia Pechstein.

"He's going to be there and there's no way you can count him out of anything," Blair said recently of Davis. "He always seems to find a way to put himself in the mix of things."

Davis has held the world record for almost five years. He is the overwhelming favorite coming in, having won three of four World Cup races as the top-ranked skater in the world.

He says he never has been in better shape but conceded there is more pressure in Sochi.

"Defending is always harder than trying to be on the offense," Davis said. "I have a lot on my shoulders. But I'll do the best I can."

Davis also has two silver medals in the 1,500. Capturing his fifth medal would equal Heiden for most by an American male speedskater. (The most-decorated Winter Olympian is Davis pal and short-track speedskater Apolo Anton Ohno, with eight). Davis and Heiden are the only men to capture world championships in both sprint (500 and 1,000 meters) and all-around (500, 1,500, 5,000 and 10,000 meters).

Davis will be tested by surging Dutch skaters who so far have gone 1-2-3 in both men's events here. Leading the way is Michel Mulder, 27, who is coming off his second straight World Sprint championship and won gold in the 500 on Monday.

Kazakhstan's Denis Kuzin, 25, won the 1,000 at the 2013 world championships at Adler Arena, site of Wednesday's race. Davis took bronze.

"There are no favorites," he said. "We can all win, and we are all still training hard."

Also chasing Davis is Brian Hansen of Glenview, Ill., who won a silver medal in the team pursuit in 2010 and is coming off his strongest World Cup season. Hansen, 23, trains with Davis and looked up to him as a kid. At the U.S. trials, Hansen lost the 1,000 to Davis by one-hundredth of a second.

"When you look where I've been time-wise compared to him the past two years, every race has been really close, so the gap's not that great," Hansen said. "Career to career, it's not the same at all. But I'm right there with him so I hope I can put it together when the time comes."

The story of Shani Davis has been well-chronicled. Born on the South Side of Chicago, he began skating when his mother learned about speedskating when she worked for Chicago attorney Fred Benjamin, who has been involved in the sport for years. Davis and his mother moved to Evanston, where he excelled in his speedskating club.

He has ascended to the top of his sport, shattering records and gobbling up medals across the globe. For years he's trained on his own, without a coach. He enjoys immense popularity in the Netherlands, a nation consumed by the sport.

"He's very well known in the Netherlands, he's always being asked for photographs and autographs, but in America not so much," said Gerard Kemkers, the Dutch coach who worked with the U.S. team in the 1990s. "For his results and knowing him personally, he is one of the greatest speedskaters of all time.

Since Davis arrived in Sochi, he has been more at ease with media attention and his teammates. He is expected to compete in the team pursuit for the first time, a long bone of contention his previous two Games.

Three days after the 1,000, Davis races in the 1,500 -- the other of his "babies," as he calls his best events. Until then, Davis is focused on making history. And he knows people are chasing him.

"In that 1,000, I'm the man," Davis said. "I have the biggest target on my back and people really strive to beat me, and that's all they really train and aim for."

(c)2014 Chicago Tribune

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