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Shani Davis Was the Fastest Skater in the World

At Sochi this month, the gold medalist from Chicago—approaching retirement, recovering from an injury, and training on his own—could prove that he still is.

Above: Davis skating in a World Cup race in Canada this past November Photo: Todd Korol/Getty Images

He arrives alone, wearing baggy shorts over a spandex bodysuit, a black Chicago White Sox cap, and a gray sweatshirt with the hood up against the chill of this November afternoon. As he pushes open one of the glass-and-steel doors of the Pettit National Ice Center on Milwaukee’s west side, he’s greeted with smiles and calls of “Hey, Shani!” and “Good luck!” from the woman behind the counter, a couple of rink regulars, a few awestruck youngsters.

To each, he beams a broad smile in return. He sets his gear on a bench and begins to lace up a pair of forest-green skates with neon- green tongues. Rising, he pulls off the skates’ soakers (terry-cloth blade covers that absorb moisture), revealing a flash of gold. He approaches Pettit’s 400-meter indoor speed-skating oval, one of only 29 in the world. It gleams under the fluorescent lights as flocks of skaters—some serious athletes, others kids learning the sport—click by.

He steps onto the ice. In just a few smooth strides, he reaches the first turn on the giant oval. He crouches low, locking into position like a car seat after the driver pulls a lever. His thighs piston smoothly, bent arms penduluming up and down, close to his body. The movements appear so effortless that it hardly seems possible that he can generate much power. For a moment the thought comes that if I were to go out there in my hockey skates and just skate wildly, as hard as I could, I could take him.

But then I catch a glimpse of his head as he rounds the turn. He is flying so fast that he is literally almost a blur. (A world-class speed skater can hit 35 miles per hour.) I scramble to lift my camera, thinking I’m going to capture a classic straightaway shot. But by the time I remove the lens cap, he has already whipped past and rounded the first turn again, passing the other skaters as if they were standing still. Think a Formula One racer, but soundless except for the clean, slightly menacing snick, snick of blades slicing ice.

Shani Davis may well skate faster than anyone else on the planet. Setter of eight world records, owner of four Olympic medals (two of them gold), and winner of 57 World Cup races, more than any speed skater except the Canadian legend Jeremy Wotherspoon. He has already made history as the first black athlete from any country to win individual gold in any sport in the Winter Olympic Games. That was eight years ago, in Turin, Italy, in the individual 1,000-meter race.

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As the 31-year-old Chicago native readies for his fourth Olympics—in Sochi, Russia, from February 7 to 23—the pressure is on. Given Davis’s age, this may be his last time competing in the Games. (No Olympic speed skater in the modern era has won gold past age 31, though there have been a few medalists in their early 30s.) What’s more, a year ago Davis suffered a tear high in the adductor muscle of his right thigh. (He says it’s no longer painful; he must put out of his mind the possibility that it could flare up again.) Despite all that, he has no regular coach to prepare him, preferring to train by himself—a radical move in his sport.

The 2014 Olympics are also an opportunity for Davis to show once and for all that he has left past slights behind. Throughout his career, he has been subject to damaging criticism and even outright attacks from people in the hidebound skating world, many of them mean-spirited (racial epithets) and petty (accusations that he’s not a team player). “I’m thankful now for all those hardships,” Davis says. “It didn’t make me quit. It made me stronger.”

 

Most great short-track speed skaters—who skate distances of as little as 500 meters—are short. (Olympic champion Apolo Ohno, for example, stands 5-foot-7.) Their ability to crouch lower than tall skaters helps minimize air resistance.

At 6-foot-2, Davis is a giant by short-track standards. He’s been able to dominate middle distance (1,000 to 1,500 meters) in part because of an unusual combination of hip flexibility and leg strength, says Nathaniel Mills, a three-time Olympic skater who began coaching Davis in Evanston when the boy was 12. Once he gathers speed, Davis can get superlow, his glutes hovering just inches from the ice. “He’s had this superior body position his entire life,” Mills notes.

That extreme crouch allows Davis to compensate for quads that aren’t as eye-popping as those of most of his competitors. It also turns his height to his advantage. His deeper knee bend and longer legs make for a longer push off the ice, helping him achieve maximum power.

An elite skater generates most of his speed when he turns, harnessing powerful centripetal force that would otherwise send him spinning out. You’ve seen the position: tilted so far to the left (speed skaters always travel counterclockwise) that the skater is practically horizontal, one extended arm nearly brushing the ice for balance. Thanks to early and continued training on the short track—rare among long-track racers—Davis is used to making hairpin turns at high speeds without fear. “Shani gets his left hip into the turn, well inside his left blade, and pushes more to the side instead of behind him,” Mills explains.

Combine those pluses with an unusually high tolerance for lactic acid—which builds up in muscles and can cause pain—and you’ve got a skater with greater endurance. If Davis isn’t in front when he enters a final lap, he often passes skaters just when they think they have him beat. That move may be his most feared weapon.

Which leads to what many observers call the most remarkable thing about Davis: He is largely self-coached. Yes, he had regular coaching when he was young, and he occasionally hires various pros for short-term stints to help him work on certain aspects of his technique. But he is virtually alone in bypassing a single full-time coach—to the astonishment of a skating establishment built on convention and conformity.

“He’s got a little notebook that he opens up, and he looks at previous workouts that he’s done in the past,” explains speed skating legend Eric Heiden, who is now an orthopedic surgeon (and who knows Davis through his role as team doctor for the U.S. Olympic speed-skating team). “And he gives an assessment of how he feels after those workouts. Out of that he makes up his own programs. . . . I’ve never seen an athlete who sort of does his own training program and be as successful at this level.”

When asked why he doesn’t employ a regular coach, Davis says, “I’ve been skating for 25 years. I feel like I’ve learned a thing or two on what it is that I need to do.”

 
Davis as a child
As a child, Davis was “just bones and blades,” a fellow skater says. Photo: Sander Hicks

Davis shakes his head when he recalls the unlikely beginning of his career. His mother, Cherie, a legal secretary who was raising him in the South Side neighborhood of Hyde Park, put him on roller skates when he was two. (She and Davis’s father, Reggie Shuck, split six months after their son was born.) “She wanted me to do roller dance,” he recalls, laughing. “But I never liked the dance and the rhythm part of it. I liked skating fast.”

His instructors at the long-gone Ravenswood roller rink Rainbo, noticing the boy’s flagging interest, suggested ice skating. Fortuitously, Davis says, one of his mother’s bosses had a son who did speed skating. “I had never heard of it. Football and basketball were the primary sports on the South Side of Chicago.” Davis and his friends worshiped Michael Jordan and Walter Payton, not Eric Heiden and Dan Jansen.

His first time trading in eight wheels for two slivers of steel was comical. “I could barely stand up on the blades,” Davis says. “I also didn’t have the ankle strength.” Yet the six-year-old was quickly hooked. “It was just really, really fun,” he recalls. “I grew up as an only child, and there were lots of kids out there. . . . I loved everything about it.”

Shortly afterward, Davis joined the Evanston Speedskating Club, his mother driving him to twice-weekly practices at Evanston’s Robert Crown Center in an ’88 Volkswagen Golf. “It was really unique because it was a majority black club,” Davis recalls. “The first time I was out there, I was, like, one of 15 black skaters. I thought it was the coolest thing.” Even his coach, Sanders “Sam” Hicks, was African American.

Davis realized just how unusual his group was when he skated in his first meets in the suburbs of Northbrook and Glen Ellyn. “I was like, Where are the rest of the black kids?” he recalls, chuckling.

His Hyde Park friends gave him plenty of ribbing for his chosen sport. “They would tease me for wearing tights or that it was associated with figure skating. Some of my friends said it was a white sport.” Davis refused to show how much the gibes stung. “It was hurtful at first, but so what, you know? They had their opinion, I had mine. I had a whole bunch of trophies and ribbons they didn’t have. They might have had some more acceptability amongst their peers because they liked football or basketball, but I was always a unique individual. I got to where I didn’t necessarily care what people thought of me. I just loved what I was doing, and that was skating.”

By the time he reached seventh grade, Davis and Cherie had moved to the far northern neighborhood of Rogers Park to be closer to the Evanston rink. “Right from the start, his talent was apparent,” says Mills, who began coaching Davis around this time. When Davis and Cherie visited Pettit in Milwaukee, the African American speed skater Olusegun Sijuwade, who was training there, introduced himself. “[Davis was] the first black [person] I’d seen speed skating,” Sijuwade explains. “He was just bones and blades. But the way he skated, he was graceful, even then.”

Davis spent hours studying other skaters’ techniques: weight transfers, body angles, and race strategy—anything that could give him an edge. (“He’s got a very scientific mind,” Mills says.) And he rapidly grew bigger and more powerful. “By the time I was leaving in 1996 to return to competition,” Mills marvels, “he was almost as fast as I was.” He was 14.

 

Two years later, Davis received what seemed like the break of a lifetime: acceptance into a special skating program at a high school in the tiny upstate New York town of Lake Placid, which had hosted the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics. The classroom curriculum focused on sports science and sports medicine, and the training was intense. “I went from skating a couple of times a week to skating every day before school in the morning and again after school,” Davis says. The hard work paid off: “I went from not being [nationally] ranked at all to eighth in the country after one season.”

Still, fitting in at Lake Placid, recalls Davis, “was a constant clash.” His fellow student athletes “had this whole mentality that we’re friends off the ice, but we’re not friends on the ice. That’s something I never really adapted to.” Worse, racial animus surfaced one day during a basketball game. “I think some of my teammates might have gotten wind of me getting really strong, and they wanted to discourage me,” he says. “They started calling me ‘boy.’ Maybe 20 or 30 times.” And not in a playful way. “It was demeaning and degrading.”

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Unable to contain himself, Davis threw the ball at one of the players. Both were suspended, Davis for 10 days, the other player for two. But it wasn’t the suspension that bothered him most. “I was heartbroken,” he says. “I thought they were my friends.”

Disappointment struck again when he was passed over for the national team shortly afterward, even though he was ranked higher than some of the skaters chosen. “I heard all these things about how I was lazy. That I wasn’t mentally ready to go there. And I’m thinking, How can you say such a thing? I’ve devoted my life to skating. I devoted myself to training. That’s why I’m eighth in the country. I don’t understand why you’re picking people who are ranked lower than I am.

“I realized it was really me against the world,” he continues. “It was a valuable life lesson, and I’m glad I learned it sooner rather than later.”

Davis left Lake Placid for Marquette, Michigan, where he found a much more supportive environment in which to train. He became close friends with Apolo Ohno, who was also training in Marquette. They both decided to shoot for the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City.

On the last day of the Olympic trials in late 2001, the 19-year-old Davis was out of the running for a main spot on the U.S. team. But he could still qualify as an alternate—if he won his final race, the 1,000 meters. He competed against three other men, including Ohno. Davis sprinted out front, stayed there, and won. He was ecstatic. “It was one of those days where you feel like a hero. My mom was so proud.”

The joy was short-lived. One of the skaters, Tommy O’Hare, filed a grievance alleging that Ohno and the fourth skater, Rusty Smith, had conspired to let Davis win. An arbitrator in Colorado Springs deemed the claims unfounded. But in Davis’s mind, the damage had been done. “My image was ruined,” he says. “When I went to the Olympics, I heard some of the higher-ups in speed skating talking really negatively, really badly, about me, saying I didn’t deserve to be on the Olympic team, and I wasn’t a real man, I wasn’t fast enough. . . . There was no way I could prove them wrong, because [as an alternate] I wasn’t skating.”

Wale Kadiri, who skated with Davis in Evanston, says he didn’t recognize the person he saw in the media. “It was really upsetting when you know this person
and know he’s not at all what he’s being portrayed as.”

Davis flew to Salt Lake City but left the games shortly after the U.S. team failed to qualify for the relay finals. He wanted to start training for the upcoming World Junior Championships. “I said, ‘The next time I’m at the Olympics, I’ve got to win a medal, because I don’t ever want to be labeled that way again.’ I put too much into the sport of skating. My family sacrificed so many things for me to be where I was. It really motivated me to work hard, to be more focused, and be ready for the next opportunity.”

 
Davis winning his first gold medal
Winning his first Olympic gold in Turin, Italy, in 2006 Photo: Matt Dunham/AP

True to his word, at the 2006 Games in Turin, Davis captured gold in the 1,000 meters and silver in the 1,500. Overall, the United States hauled in seven medals, including three golds, placing the team third behind the Netherlands and Canada in total podium visits. “It was huge,” Davis recalls.

Dampening the celebration was a widely reported feud between Davis and teammate Chad Hedrick, another gold medalist (in the 5,000 meters). The issue: that Davis did not participate in the team pursuit, an event in which three-member groups from each country race head-to-head. Hedrick told the press: “I don’t see what his logic is. We can’t be beat if he skates. It’s his decision. I’m not going to get in the middle of it. I would like him to be in the pursuit, but am I going to beg him? No.” The implication: that Davis was not only a poor teammate but also downright unpatriotic.

Team pursuit was not one of Davis’s standard events. He had not practiced with the U.S. team in the two-year run-up to the Olympics, and by the time the race rolled around, he was not even eligible to participate. But U.S. Speedskating, the national governing board for the sport, did nothing to explain the situation.

A U.S. Speedskating spokesperson responds that the group “fully supported the coaching staff and Shani’s collective decision not to compete in the team pursuit.” As for Hedrick, when I reached him in Houston, where he now works for an oil and gas company, he told me, “Looking back now, I’m not real proud of the way I behaved. I honestly want to apologize to Shani for my behavior.”

The 23-year-old was left to defend himself alone at the press conferences and interviews that followed, some of which he handled badly. “I had people from my hometown hating on me, hating on my mom,” Davis explains. “It came to a point where I didn’t even care anymore.”

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Deeply frustrated, Davis broke official ties with U.S. Speedskating and “became kind of withdrawn” in the years before the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. He trained hard, winning a World Cup race in the 1,000 meters and another in the 1,500 in the 2007–8 season. The next season he broke world records for the 1,000 and 1,500.

While Davis had been training mostly in Canada, he says trainers there began “catering to their national team members and not allowing foreigners to work with them. I decided I couldn’t rely on other people to help me improve. I had worked with almost every coach in North America, and I simply decided to take matters into my own hands, using what I learned from all of them. The results came quickly.”

At the 2010 Games, Davis successfully defended his title in the 1,000, becoming the first man to win back-to-back 1,000-meter Olympic speed-skating gold medals. The victory provided the United States with its only gold medal for speed skating at the Olympics that year.

On the podium, Davis embraced bronze medalist Chad Hedrick—his accuser four years earlier—even giving him one end of the U.S. flag. For Davis, the moment was about far more than just achieving another first. It was about letting go.

 
Davis signing a young fan’s helmet in Milwaukee’s Pettit National Ice Center
Signing a fan’s helmet in Milwaukee’s Pettit National Ice Center Photo: Adam Ryan Morris

In November 2012, two days before he was to fly to Europe for a competition, Davis was skating when he felt “a little pinch way deep in the muscle [of his right leg], up in the adductor. I said, ‘Ooh. That’s not good.’ I tried to take two more steps, and it really hurt.”

Davis had a 1.2-inch tear in the muscle. After an MRI, he withdrew from the first speed skating World Cup of the season. But he forced himself to race in a few events “because of sponsor obligations,” he says. Racing through the pain “sucked, man. . . . There were people beating me who never beat me in their lives.”

The pain didn’t vanish until last June. “I can still feel it every once in a while, if I cough or laugh hard,” he says. “The good thing is that I don’t feel it when I skate.”

Heading into the Olympic trials in late December, Davis was skating the best he has in four years. (Though the trials were to occur after this issue went to press, barring injury, he is virtually certain to qualify.) At a World Cup event in Salt Lake City in November, he won gold in the 1,500 meters, finishing in 1 minute 41.98 seconds—the fastest time in the world since he set the record of 1 minute 41.04 seconds on the same ice in 2009. A few weeks later, he struck World Cup gold again in Astana, Kazakhstan, in the 1,000 meters, cementing his status as the favorite to take the race he has dominated in the last two Winter Olympics. “It certainly seems to me that this year he appears to be on course to be on the podium again,” says Heiden. “That he’s been able to stay at the top for so long is amazing.”

Despite all he’s been through, despite his “advanced” age, Davis tells me: “I still have that fire and that passion to wake up every morning and do the training. I’m just relentless. I go out there, I train hard, I want to win.”

 

For an elite speed skater to share ice with ordinary Joes is extraordinary, sort of like Tiger Woods practicing on a municipal course. That Davis is not only willing but eager to train during Pettit’s open session on this November afternoon “captures what he’s about,” Mills says.

As children crowd around him for an autograph or a picture, Davis seems both energized and utterly in his element. “The support and feedback he gets from everyone, truly everyone, is like wind at his back,” says Mills.

After three hours, he somehow still looks as cool and calm as when he stepped into the rink. I ask him how the workout was. Davis shrugs and smiles. “Not bad,” he says. “I just had to kind of go around some people.”

 

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