The 1,500 meters is known in speedskating as the Race of Kings. It's where the rulers of the sprints and the royalty of distance racing meet to determine who can best blend speed and endurance—process adrenaline but keep the lactic acid at bay. Since he was winning national age-group championships as a junior in Chicago, Shani Davis of the U.S. has dreamed of Olympic gold in the 1,500. Countryman Chad Hedrick has so wanted to win the race that for the last two years 1500 GOLD 2010 OLYMPICS topped the list of goals taped to the back of his front door at home in Spring, Texas, so he would see it whenever he left the house. The two Americans finished two-three in Turin four years ago, leaving the gold to the homestanding Enrico Fabris of Italy. "I think Shani would agree," Hedrick said on the eve of the race, "that the 1,500 is the one that sort of got away."
Last Saturday it got away again, spirited off by Mark Tuitert of the Netherlands, who from his balcony in the Olympic Village had been looking longingly out at BC Place Stadium, site of the nightly medals ceremony. "I wanted to stand there so, so bad," Tuitert said. "I gave it all I got—if Shani or Chad was going to be better today, so be it." Neither was; Davis settled for silver, and Hedrick placed sixth.
With Davis having won gold and Hedrick bronze in the 1,000 meters three days earlier, each can now claim four career Olympic medals, making them the most decorated American male long-track skaters since Eric Heiden, who won five golds in 1980. But given their shared futility in the Olympic 1,500 and their fractious relationship in Turin (Hedrick faulted Davis for not skating the team pursuit, and Davis resented Hedrick's presuming what was best for him), not all the two have done jointly has been glorious.
Davis, 27, came to the Games with Dutch sponsors and a Japanese girlfriend following from afar, as well as a strained relationship with the U.S. speedskating federation. Davis may technically have been a member of Team USA, but just before the opening ceremonies he made sure to declare, "I'm a solo entity." More than anything he wanted to undergo a Turin-ectomy. Not, he insisted, to recoup the endorsement dollars he left on the table in 2006 after that feud with Hedrick went excruciatingly public and he scarcely looked at NBC's Melissa Stark during a post-gold-medal interview. As Davis said before the 1,000 meters, "I have enough [money] to take care of myself and my loved ones." He wanted, rather, to skate well, and to do that, he needed to find Olympic bliss.
Enter Davis's personal attaché, fellow Chicagoan Nathaniel Mills, a three-time Olympic speedskater and self-described "buffer between Shani and all the forces that might otherwise throw him off his game." If Davis wanted to banish all things negative from his Olympic experience, he found the perfect collaborator in Mills, cofounder of the Olympism Project, an organization that evangelizes for anything gauzy and five-ringed, from fair play and joy in effort, to peace, service and "world citizenship." Moreover, 15 years earlier Mills had coached a 12-year-old Shani at the Evanston Speed Skating Club. "All I know is he was the hardest worker and the hardest player, meaning he had the most fun," Mills recalls.
Mills honchoed an aggressive social-media strategy, which included Facebook and Twitter pages, and YouTube videos called SOS (Shani on Shani), "to cut out the middleman and speak directly to his many, many fans throughout the world." Mills tended particularly to the care and feeding of NBC's Andrea Kremer, the reporter to whom Stark had yielded and whom Davis charmed during midfield interviews. "Compared to four years ago, he's having fun," said Mills. "He's present and engaged and lighthearted."
Hedrick, 32, made clear that Vancouver would be his final Olympics and emphasized the turn his life had taken over the past two years, during which he had married, found religion and become a father. "Let's just say I've gone through some transformation," he said. "It's hard to believe that with a gold medal around your neck, you're in a dark spot in your life."
The old brash Hedrick wasn't entirely gone, to judge by the message—MY DADDY IS FASTER THAN YOURS—that graced the knit cap on the head of his 11-month-old daughter, Hadley. But, he said, "now I'm a much better sport than I used to be. Before I didn't want to show any weakness."
Between Hedrick's newfound grace and Davis's determination to enjoy himself, it wasn't hard for the two to reach a rapprochement. "All that happened before, it's old news," Hedrick said. "No one's wondering who wants to play with who."
"Solo entity" doesn't really ring with the Olympic spirit, so Mills helped Davis strike an alternative that still underscored his separateness from the U.S. speedskating team. On his backpack Davis sported a button reading, I'M A WORLD CITIZEN. His mother, Cherie, the toughest-to-please member of Team Davis, beamed at a Feb. 13 New York Times headline that read AMERICAN SPEEDSKATER SHANI DAVIS BELONGS TO THE WORLD. Conveniently finding himself in the emcee role at a press conference after Davis's 1,000-meter gold, Mills posed the opening question: "Shani, how do you explain that you're a citizen of the world?" Thus a new narrative was born, with Mills as the attending midwife.