BY BRAD BOTKIN I SEPT. 3, 2013
|Shani Davis poses for an NBC/U.S. Olympic Committee
promotional photo shoot on April 23, 2013 in West Hollywood, Calif.
This winter in Sochi, Russia, speedskater Shani Davis has two shots at history. First, having won the 1,000-meter gold medal at both the 2006 and 2010 Olympic Winter Games, he stands to become the first U.S. man to win a gold medal in the same event at three consecutive Winter Games. Second, if he earns a medal, of any color, in both the 1,000-meter and the 1,500-meter, he will become America’s most decorated male long-track speedskater with six career Olympic medals.
It’s a lot for a guy to think about. Which is why he doesn’t.
“I try not to get too far ahead of myself,” Davis said. “Too many things can happen. I just focus on my training and getting myself in the best possible condition to succeed, and when the time comes, may the best man win.”
Over the course of a long and obviously successful career, Davis, more often than not, has indeed been the best man. His Olympic achievements aside, he currently holds both the 1,000-meter and 1,500-meter world record. He’s also won a total of 15 world championships, nine more overall world cup titles, and just this past year, in addition to surpassing the 50-win mark on the world cup circuit to become the winningest male speedskater in U.S. history, he also became just the third man ever to break 10,000 points for his world cup career.
In an interview with Sports Illustrated, speedskating legend and NBC analyst Dan Jansen said that Davis is "probably still the best middle-distance skater in the world," but perhaps it's not as clear-cut as it once was. In a year largely marred by a tough groin injury, Davis finished this past world cup season in 10th place. In his own words, he was "up and down," never able to establish the level of consistency that has come to define his career.
And now the Olympic Winter Games are approaching, and things definitely won't be getting any easier. In that same SI article in which Dan Jansen proclaimed Davis to still be the best middle-distance skater in the world, he also said that Davis is facing stiffer competition in both the 1,000-meter and 1,500-meter than at any other point in his career, and Davis agrees.
"I know they're there," Davis said. "These athletes from other countries are getting better and faster all the time, and I've got the one thing that they all want. I'm the thing that’s standing in their way. So I have that target on my back."
|Shani Davis competes in the 1,000-meter race at the 2013 Essent
ISU World Cup Speed Skating Championships at Thialf Stadium on
March 9, 2013 in Heerenveen, Netherlands.
Davis remembers what it was like when he was the hunter, rather than the hunted. That time was when he was a kid on the south side of Chicago who'd never put on a pair of skates. The nearest skating rink was 45 minutes away. The only thing he knew of the sport was that he loved to go fast, and that he had the work ethic to spend hours running up hills because he heard that was how the great Walter Payton used to build his legs and endurance.
Soon Davis’ family moved to the north side give him easier access to skating, and then he was accepted into a training program in Lake Placid, N.Y. The process of devoting his life to the sport had begun. At 17 he became the first American skater to make both the long- and short-track world junior team, and eventually he became the first black speedskater to earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team. The road up was tough, as it tends to be, but Davis was good. And he wanted it. And now, that’s what these guys who are chasing him feel like.
“It’s not that I’m not hungry now,” Davis said. “Of course, I’m always striving to be my best and to win. But it’s a different kind of hunger when you don’t have anything to eat.”
And yet, experience is experience. You can’t replicate the Olympic stakes and the intensity that they bring, and Davis is that much further ahead for having experienced the Games from every conceivable angle. In 2006, he was the newcomer, loose and carefree and wired on adrenaline, the hunter. Then, in 2010, with his first gold medal under his belt, the expectations were suddenly different. The pressure was more intense.
“Leading up to my race in 2010, I was terrified,” Davis admitted. “It took me from the minute I woke up until about 20 minutes before my race to even start to get right mentally. I couldn’t stop thinking about all the things that could go wrong. You train your whole life for a race that takes a little over a minute, or two minutes, and the stakes of that can be pretty overwhelming. That’s why I don’t get into looking ahead. So many things can happen in such a short moment of time, and if you’re not completely focused on that moment, it can get away from you pretty quickly.”
But Davis doesn’t plan on letting that happen. He says he’s not quite in the shape he needs to be in, but he’s getting there, and he’s trending upward. This past March, he took the silver in the 1,500-meter, as well as the bronze in the 1,000-meter, at the world championships, which were held in Sochi, on the same track that will host the Olympic Games. Some have speculated that this could be Davis’ last Olympic run, and that one of speedskating’s most storied careers could be winding toward a curtain call. Davis won’t even touch that question, but he is aware that time doesn’t stand still for anyone, least of all Olympians.
“I know that the older I get, the fewer chances I have to do what I want to do,” Davis said. “But I’m getting stronger and healthier every day, and I’m just going to keep moving toward February. When the Olympic race comes, I’m going to go to the line and be confident, and like I said before, may the best man win.”