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Shani Davis will need a lot to fall into place if he's to make Olympic speed skating history in Turin, Italy, on Feb. 18, 2006. First, at the Oval Lingotto, he'll have to skate 1,000 meters of long track as well as he did when he won two silver medals at that distance in the World Sprint Championships in January. Then, roughly three hours later at the nearby Palavela, he'll have to skate 1,000 meters of short track even better than he did when he broke the U.S. record in that event in 2004. Most important, in the scramble from race to race, he'll need the shuttle buses to run on schedule. If they do, Davis could become the first speed skater to win Olympic medals in long and short track on the same day.
Failing that, since Davis, 22, is a safe bet to make the U.S. short-track relay team that will be favored a week later, he could merely become the first skater to win medals in both disciplines at the same Games. Davis needn't worry if even that shot at history fails. In between those races, on Feb. 21, he'll skate the long-track 1,500, an event in which he's the reigning world champ and world-record holder. On that day he could become the first black speed skater to win an Olympic medal. He already made history in 2002 as the first black speed skater to make a U.S. Olympic team, as an alternate on the short-track squad.
"We've never seen anyone like Shani," says his coach, Bob Fenn. "Before him, I'd say Eric Heiden was the most versatile skater we've seen, because he skated every distance. But he didn't do short track. Shani is unique."
Davis grew up on Chicago's South Side, raised by his mother, Cherie, a legal secretary. Seeking outlets for her rambunctious son's energy, Cherie put Shani on roller skates when he was two and tried to coax him into roller dancing. "I hated it," Davis says. "I wanted to go fast. I never cared about tricks and slow music."
One of the partners at Cherie's law firm was longtime speed skating official Fred Benjamin. The two discussed Shani's talents, and soon Shani was enrolled in the Evanston (Ill.) Speedskating Club and competing in regional tournaments. While he excelled at the sport, he also faced peer pressure for doing something different. "The kids would say, 'You wear tights,'" says Davis. "I'd say, 'So? You play football and you wear half-tights.' But I really felt I could do something great in skating."
In 2000, at age 17, Davis moved to Lake Placid, N.Y., to train with the national team, sometimes brawling with local hockey players. "It was tough, good fun," he recalls. "I had that city mentality, and I tested the skills of some of those country boys." That year he became the first U.S. skater in 10 years to make both short- and long-track national teams in the same season, a feat he has repeated four years' running.
The double duty keeps him busy. Last season he won the 1,500 at the long-track World Single Distance championships in Seoul. The next week he flew to Sweden, for the short-track worlds. In December, Davis won his third straight U.S. all-around title. In January at the World Sprint Championships he broke the 1,500 meters in 1:43.33. In February he won the world all-around title in long track in Moscow, and at the U.S. short-track championships Davis finished fifth (despite being disqualified in the 1,500), earning a spot on the Apolo Ono--led U.S. team that will compete at the worlds this weekend in Beijing.
Davis's feat is the Olympic equivalent of Tom Brady's playing both quarterback and linebacker. 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.
Though coaches have urged Davis to specialize in long-track races for which his 6'2" frame is better suited, he prefers the action on the rink. "Short track is strategic and dangerous, like NASCAR," he says. "That's what makes it fun. Short track helps me with long track because I feel comfortable whipping around corners. The next time I'm in the Olympics, I'd better touch the ice every day of competition."