Best U.S. speedskater goes it alone
Shani Davis is the United States' best male speedskater since Eric Heiden
The 27-year-old from Chicago, however, is on the U.S. team but not of it
Davis chooses solitude -- he has no full-time coach, and finds his own sponsors
(This story appeared in the Feb. 8, 2010, issue of Sports Illustrated.)
A new three-letter code deserves a place among the ones likely to grace the leader board at the Olympic speedskating oval in Vancouver. To USA, NED, CAN, NOR, GER and KOR we might add TSD, for Team Shani Davis. TSD's head of state is on the U.S. team but not of it. At his request U.S. Speedskating doesn't post his bio on its website. He passes up financial support from the U.S. federation and instead finds his own sponsors; TSD even had a brief diplomatic spat with SCN, Stephen Colbert Nation, whose donations had closed a six-figure sponsorship gap to fund Team USA for these Games -- though that's another story.
As speedskating approaches its quadrennial reckoning, the story is this: Just as no skater since Eric Heiden has commanded the 1,000 and 1,500 meters the way Davis does now, no American Olympian has ever stood more apart from his sport's establishment and conventions. Davis consults with at least six coaches but decides on training routines himself. He lives in Chicago but vagabonds between rinks in Salt Lake City and Milwaukee with the help of sponsorship funds provided by three Dutch companies, as well as Nike. He kites off to train in a different discipline, short track, during breaks in his long-track schedule. He had an agent -- the same guy who does well by a certain multiple-gold-medal-winning American swimmer -- but parted ways with him last year, leaving his mom, Cherie, to supervise matters off the ice. And TSD has chosen not to join USA to skate the team pursuit in Vancouver, even though doing so would give Davis a shot at a third gold medal. Instead he'll take on an ambitious schedule, skating four individual events at distances ranging from 500 to 5,000 meters.
Figuratively and literally, Davis, 27, is master of the closed loop. "He has no coach, no training program, no team behind him," says his friend Apolo Anton Ohno, the U.S. short-track gold medalist. "He's taking on guys with Tour de France budgets going for one or two races. If he had the right support group he could medal in every race."
If anything explains the solitude Davis has chosen, it would be the shroud of Turin. Four years ago Davis skated to gold in the 1,000 and silver in the 1,500. But a feud with U.S. rival Chad Hedrick went public and ruined the moment, snuffing out the endorsement bonanza that should have been his as the first black Winter Olympian to win individual gold. The sniping began when Hedrick ripped Davis for failing to join him in the team pursuit. Even though Davis never intended to take part, the U.S. team had, unbeknownst to him, submitted his name as a possible participant, and after Hedrick's broadside U.S. officials never clarified that Davis couldn't have let anyone down because he had never formally stepped up. All of which left Davis hanging, a piņata for a mostly uncomprehending press corps. "[The team pursuit] happened right in the middle of the [individual] competition," says one of Davis's advisers, former Olympic champion Bart Veldkamp of the Netherlands. "I would have made the same decision. The media wanted a war, and nobody deserves that, especially athletes who go four years without anybody talking to them."
Last fall Davis gave every indication he would skate the pursuit in Vancouver. At the U.S. World Cup trials in October he said he didn't want "to water down the potency of my skating [in the Olympics]" by entering too many individual events, and said the team pursuit "could be the cherry on top of my sundae." The following month, he joined Hedrick and Trevor Marsicano to tie the powerful Dutch for the pursuit gold at a World Cup meet in Holland.
But after Christmas came word -- from U.S. Speedskating, with no further explanation -- that Davis would pass up the team pursuit and instead skate all five individual events. Several weeks after that he chose to give the 10,000 a miss. He will be heavily favored in the 1,000 and the 1,500 but hard-pressed to win a medal in the others. Davis dominated the middle distances through the World Cup season, going 4 for 4 in the 1,000 and 4 for 5 in the 1,500, setting five track records and one world mark. But this season he is ranked 16th in the 500 and 10th in the 5,000. He is probably too slow off the start to place in the former, and the latter remains the province of the Netherlands' Sven Kramer, the 23-year-old world-record holder, whose mastery of the distance events Davis has said "turned me into a sprinter."
But by skating four races, Davis is staking a claim. In an ever more specialized sport, in which the 1,500 is a hybrid no-man's event, he's a throwback all-rounder. Fold in his devotion to short track and he can make the case that he's the most versatile skater since Heiden.
None of Davis's go-it-alone-isms turns more heads than his choice to train without a primary coach. "[It] isn't the right thing," concedes one of his longtime coaches, Wisconsin-based Bob Fenn. "Especially at this level, where there's a fine tooth between victory and defeat."
Veldkamp is more understanding. "If you know yourself, you know what you need," he says. "But you have to have self-discipline and confidence. He's the exception. He races himself, not others. If he fails, his attitude is, 'Hey, I tried it,' with a smile. That's why he's able to skate those [fast] times. That and his short-track pedigree, which nets him decisive seconds on long-track turns."
"It's always amazed me how he does what he does without a coach," adds Heiden, now the U.S. team's physician. "To see Shani put all the puzzle pieces together, to train and deal with all the commotion that goes with being really successful, I scratch my head."
Heiden is hardly alone in his wonder. "[Shani is] not so much misunderstood," says Ohno. "More like not understood."