INSIDE THE main entrance of the Utah Olympic Oval near Salt Lake City last Friday, Shani Davis was up on a scissor lift, revising the honor roll that lists every current long-track speedskating world record. As a crowd of onlookers cheered, Davis removed the placard for the men's 1,500 meters that read: denny morrison, canada, 1:42.01 and replaced it with a new one: shani davis, usa, 1:41.80. "An hour old. It's official," he said.
Davis, 26, has been raising himself to new heights since the Turin Olympics in 2006, when he won the 1,000 meters but endured a public feud with teammate and rival Chad Hedrick. A day after setting the 1,500 record in Salt Lake, he watched 19-year-old countryman Trevor Marsicano lower the world mark in the 1,000, to 1:06.88. Just 22 minutes later Davis dropped it to 1:06.42—and celebrated with another ascent on the scissor lift to slide his name onto the wall again.
Davis is establishing his own wing in the speedskating pantheon, having excelled at all distances and both versions of his sport. He earned an Olympic berth in short-track skating in 2002 and barely missed another in '06. (He has not raced short-track since '07.) When he took the overall title at the world sprints in Moscow two months ago he joined Eric Heiden as the only men to win both that and a world allround championship. (Davis won the latter competition, which includes the grueling 10,000 meters, in both '05 and '06.) While skaters increasingly specialize in either sprints or distances, Davis's range sets him apart. At 6'2" he has the long, flowing strides of a tall skater but, notes Heiden, also "the great corners he learned from battling smaller guys in short track."
Asked if he could think of a comparably versatile skater, Heiden mentions Oscar Mathisen, the Norwegian who broke world records from 500 to 10,000 meters a century ago, and Ard Schenk, the Dutchman who won gold in the 1,500, 5,000 and 10,000 at the 1972 Olympics. "But with his short-track [success]," Heiden says, "there isn't anyone like Shani. I wasn't as versatile. I skated [short-track] a little, but not like him."
Davis's prowess should make him a star on the order of Heiden, but he's been held back by his stormy relationship with U.S. Speedskating. In 2005 the federation stopped paying his expenses and stipend after he wore a personal sponsor's logo on his skinsuit. Shortly thereafter, Davis asked for his bio to be removed from the USS website and began training on his own in Calgary. In Turin, Hedrick questioned Davis's decision not to skate in the team pursuit. Though Davis had told officials weeks earlier that he wouldn't participate, so as to conserve energy for the 1,000, USS stayed mum and allowed the spat to fester. "When that happened I tried to close myself in," says Davis, who joined Hedrick in a pursuit in the Netherlands in November, for the first time since the incident. "It should have been a friendly rivalry."
Davis's mother, Cherie, has fired off angry letters to many in the speedskating community and in the press who she believes have wronged her son. Says one former skater, "I'm afraid even to say something nice about him, because I'll get ripped as a phony by his camp."
It's hard to reconcile that fearfulness with Davis's outgoing personality. Outside the oval on Saturday, the man who plans to be a schoolteacher one day "because I am a kid at heart" gladly mugged with seniors, babies, tipsy Dutchmen and even a mascot. He obliged four teens who'd inadvertently deleted a previous day's photo with him and posed for another snapshot. "Want the same goofy smile?" he asked. When told of Heiden's remarks, Davis nearly choked up, calling them "the best compliment ... really touching."
As he keeps putting up records, it's time for the walls around Davis to come down, so that everyone—fans, fellow skaters and even U.S. Speedskating—can finally embrace him.
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