Shani Davis made sports history at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy, with his first-place finish in the men's 1,000-meter speed-skating event. The achievement made him the first African-American athlete ever to win Olympic gold for an individual Winter Games contest. Davis's rise to the top of his sport was not without controversy, however, both at the Olympics and in the championship seasons that preceded his historic gold medal. Sportswriters chronicled his dispute with a fellow U.S. speed-skating team member in Turin, and Davis's concerned mother became somewhat infamous for her incautious statements to the press.
Because of these troubles Davis was usually tagged by the media as aloof and prickly, but the Chicago-born skater was impervious to such criticisms after spending the better part of his 23 years devoted to a sport that remained the province of predominantly white, middle-class athletes. "I really don't care what the people think," he commented in an interview with Jet writer Melody K. Hoffman. "But everyone thinks that's so horrible, 'you don't care what other people think about you.' But that's the way I've always been. You know, if I had cared what everyone thought about me, I would NOT be a speedskater."
Began on Roller Skates
Davis was born in 1982 and spent his earliest years on Chicago's South Side. His mother, Cherie, became a single parent after her relationship with Davis's father ended, which happened when Davis was still in diapers; his father, Reginald Shuck, remained part of his life. Once Davis began walking, Cherie found herself with a supremely energetic toddler, and she looked for ways to channel his energy. Roller skating at the local rink was one avenue, and he soon proved so fast on wheels that even rink personnel had a difficult time catching him.
Cherie Davis began working for a legal firm around the time that her son entered the first grade, and told one of the firm's lawyers about her son's prowess on wheels. The attorney, whose own son was a competitive ice-rink speed skater, suggested that Davis try out at the Evanston Speedskating Club. Located in a suburb just across the northern border of Chicago, the club boasted a diverse membership, despite the fact that speed skating had long been dominated by white, middle-class youth. The club's coach, Sanders Hicks, was African American, and was impressed by Davis's abilities. Soon Cherie moved to Rogers Park, the northernmost neighborhood of Chicago, so that Davis could be closer to his daily practice sessions.
Davis began competing on the junior circuit, where both his skin color and his talent made him a target. He was the victim of name-calling and dirty tricks, including one incident when he and his mother were told they could take a break for lunch, only to return and find that Davis had been disqualified for showing up late. "He loved to skate, so I'd always say, 'I'll do the fighting, don't even worry about it,'" Cherie told Hoffman in Jet. "Sometimes I'd make things better and sometimes things got worse." Davis was even teased at school for his extracurricular activities, tagged as an "Oreo" by other kids for his skating-club activities.
Left Home at 17
Cherie Davis struggled to make the household budget stretch to meet the ambitions she had for her son. He attended a private, Roman Catholic school, but it was the skating competitions that broke the bank on more than one occasion. "Those were tough times," she admitted to Ebony writer Tracey Robinson-English. "Whenever we'd go to the competitions, it would be at least a $1,000 in expenses by the time you'd get through with the hotel and rental car." But the credit-card debts and payday advances paid off when, at the age of 17, Davis was offered a slot in the U.S. Olympic speed-skating training program in Lake Placid, New York.
Olympic speed skating is divided into two events, known as short track and long track. In the first, four to six skaters race against one another on a specially designed oval track about the size of an average ice rink. The long-track rink is twice as large, and skaters compete two at a time, reaching speeds of 35 miles per hour. Long-track competitors wear clap skates, which have a hinge at the front of the blade that lets the skater lift the heel for maximum agility when rounding corners. Davis excelled in both events, and earned a spot on the long-track and short-track teams in 2000 for the Junior World Championships, a distinction he repeated in 2001 and 2002. He was the first American speed skater to qualify for both divisions in a decade. "Davis's feat is the Olympic equivalent of Tom Brady's playing both quarterback and linebacker," noted Sports Illustrated writer Brian Cazeneuve. "The fluid, lengthy stride of a long tracker on clap skates doesn't usually cut it among the often shorter, stockier short-track skaters, who constantly turn, dart in and out of the lead and brush against each other. Long track is solitude; short track is roller derby."
By 2002, Davis was ready for the Olympics, and earned a spot on the short track squad. He was the first African American to join the U.S. Olympic speed-skating team, but the achievement was marred by controversy when another skater claimed that Davis's teammates, Apolo Anton Ohno and Rusty Smith—who had already qualified for an Olympic berth—deliberately threw the qualification race to let Davis win. An arbitration panel heard testimony from Davis and other skaters who supported his accuser, Tommy O'Hare, but the witnesses eventually recanted testimony claiming they had overheard the others plotting to let Davis win. Davis, Ohno, and Smith were exonerated, but when Davis arrived in Salt Lake City, Utah, for the 2002 Winter Games, he was told by officials that he was now an alternate on the U.S. team. He never competed, and left before the Games had ended to race in the long track at the Junior World Championships in Italy.
Set New World Records
Davis continued to prove his mettle over the next four years. He left the junior circuit in 2003, emerged as the top North American long-track champion early that year, and went on to take second place overall for the 2004 World Long Track Championships in Hamar, Norway. In March of 2004, he won the 1,500-meter race at the World Single Distance championships in Seoul, South Korea. A year later, he set three world records in the sport—for the 1,500-meter, an all-round, and the 1,000-meter. These feats gave him a pass when it came time for the U.S. Olympic trials for 2006, with his record-setting times guaranteeing him an automatic spot on the men's speed-skating team.
At a Glance …
Born on August 13, 1982, in Chicago, IL; son of Reginald Shuck and Cherie Davis. Education: Attended Northern Michigan University.
Career: Speedskater, 2000–.
Selected awards: World Long Track Championships, three world records, 2005; Olympic Games, Turin, Italy, Gold medal, 2006, for men's 1,000-meter race; Olympic Games, Turin, Italy, Silver medal, 2006, for 1,500-meter race.
Addresses: Office—c/o Team Shani Davis, 815 Dempster St., Evanston IL 60201.
Controversy still followed Davis, however. His mother served as his manager, and regularly berated skating officials and journalists for perceived slights. There was also a falling-out with the U.S. Speedskating Association (USS) over the wearing of sponsorship logos on his uniform. He had signed a deal in 2004 with a Dutch bank, which gave him far more generous financial support than the USS's $550 monthly stipend. The USS had also objected to similar issues involving two other top American skaters, Chad Hedrick and Derek Parra, who also broke away from the organization.
In January of 2006, Davis won two silver medals in the short track at the World Sprint Championships. When the 2006 Turin Olympics began a month later, he held six World Cup titles in the 1,000-meter competition and was predicted to easily win Olympic gold in that event. Another fracas erupted at the start of the Games, however, when Davis's coach told the press that the skater would not participate in a team speed-skating event in order to concentrate on his individual 1,000-meter race, which was scheduled to take place two days after the team pursuit. The long-simmering hostilities among the U.S. men's team came to a head when Hedrick voiced his opinion on Davis's decision to sit out the team event. Hedrick, another top skater hoping to break an Olympic record by taking five gold medals in the sport, told the media that he considered himself "a part of Team USA," as Rick Morrissey in the Chicago Tribune quoted him as saying. "That's what I qualified for…. I didn't care about how it was going to affect my individual race. I don't care about that. I care about being part of the team."
Others defended Davis over accusations that he was unsportsmanlike for avoiding the team pursuit. These included Morrissey in the Chicago Tribune. "Wrapping yourself in the flag might be a fashion statement, but it doesn't say a whole lot for Hedrick," Morrissey noted. "He's right: Davis isn't a team player. That's because speedskating isn't a team sport. It's an individual sport." Davis's mother also weighed in on the matter, asserting Davis was being singled out for retaliation because of the earlier sponsorship issue with the USS. Writing in Sports Illustrated, Rick Reilly maintained that Cherie Davis's ire was not without merit. The Davises had "a valid beef with USS," Reilly wrote. "Even though Shani never wanted to race the team pursuit in Turin, the federation signed him up anyway, 'in case he wanted to change his mind,' a USS official said. But when he didn't—thus hurting Hedrick's shot at five golds—it looked like Davis had flaked out at the last minute."
Endured Bad Press, Vicious Letters
When the team-pursuit conflict began receiving media attention, Davis was sent scores of e-mails from speed-skating fans rebuking him for being unpatriotic and even selfish. Despite the negatively charged atmosphere, Davis went on to win the gold medal for the men's 1,000-meter event, and a silver for a second-place finish in the 1,500-meter. His gold medal made him the first African-American athlete ever to win an individual event in the Winter Games; previously, bobsledder Vonetta Flowers had earned a gold medal on a two-person team at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.
Even Davis's historic victory earned him bad press. When his gold-medal results were announced, he issued terse replies to an NBC reporter, which prompted her to ask, "Are you angry?" But as Davis explained later to Jet, "I would see her every day, [she] wouldn't have a word to say to me, not even a word. So when she tried this, 'Oh my gosh,' and all this stuff, I was just real short, I didn't have anything to say to her."
Davis's post-Olympic wins continued when he took first place for the 1,000-meter once again at the International Skating Union's World Cup Speed Skating Finals. He trained on his own in Calgary, Alberta, and during the summer months takes classes at Northern Michigan University in Marquette. He continued his involvement with the Evanston Speedskating Club as a volunteer coach to a younger generation of Olympic hopefuls. He cited Jack Johnson, the African-American world heavyweight champion boxer from 1908 to 1915, as one of his all-time heroes. "I wish I was able to come out of the Olympics a little less tainted," he told Robinson-English in the Ebony interview. "I just keep trying to move forward and put the past behind me. I came out of the Olympics with a gold medal, and that's something special. It's something that people will remember, and something I'll remember for the rest of my life."
Chicago Tribune, February 18, 2006.
Ebony, May 2006, p. 174.
Houston Chronicle, February 19, 2006, p. 1.
Jet, March 27, 2006, p. 60.
Sports Illustrated, March 14, 2005, p. 76; January 16, 2006, p. 70; February 27, 2006, p. 70; March 6, 2006, p. 80.
USA Today, February 9, 2006, p. 3C.
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