SOCHI, Russia — Shani Davis wasn’t yet born when Eric Heiden composed his five symphonies in Lake Placid in 1980. He was a toddler when Dan Jansen began his Olympic quest in Sarajevo in 1984. But in this millennium he has become the face of American speedskating around the planet.
“He is one of the most loved foreign skaters,” says Dutch coach Gerard Kemkers. “He’s very well known in the Netherlands. He’s always being asked for photographs and autographs, but in America not so much.”
There was nobody like Davis when he came into the sport, a leggy black guy out of the south side of Chicago who said, perhaps not in jest, he developed his zest for speed by outrunning tougher kids. Davis has been outskating the rest of the world for a decade now and on Wednesday in the 1,000 meters inside Adler Arena he’ll be favored to achieve something that no other speedskater has managed — to win the same event at three consecutive Games.
“People are shooting for me,” says the 31-year-old Davis. “I have the biggest target on my back and people really strive to beat me. That’s all they train and aim for. In the 1,000, I’m the man. My job is to try to defend it.”
No man ever has had to defend the title twice. Heiden, the only man to win all five long-track distances — 500, 1,000, 1,500, 5,000 and 10,000 at the same Games — was two-and-through. Jansen, who competed at four Olympics, won his only gold medal (in the 1,000) in his final race, in 1994.
Davis has four in his trophy case — the two golds in the 1,000 and two silvers in the 1,500 — and nobody’s betting against him pulling off a sweep, which no one has done since Canada’s Gaetan Boucher in 1984. “I don’t want to choose,” Davis says. “I want them both. I have two hands. I can hold two medals.”
The trick will be winning the 1,500, where Davis came second to Italy’s Enrico Fabris in 2006 and to Mark Tuitert of the Netherlands last time, but where he holds the world record of 1 minute, 41.04 seconds. “That would be a big dream come true for me, to be able to win a gold medal in the 1,500,” Davis said at the US trials. “I love that race so much because when I was a junior skater the first race I won was the 1,500.”
This time the winner of the 1,500 will collect two medals — the traditional gold plus an anniversary keepsake embedded with pieces of the meteor that struck Chelyabinsk a year ago. “Good luck trying to get that one through customs in America,” cracked Davis, who won a silver medal in Chelyabinsk in the World Cup opener there two seasons ago.
They know Davis in Chelyabinsk, as they do in most places that have an iced 400-meter track. “He’s the most popular guy in the speedskating world,” says John Volkers, longtime Olympic writer for de Volkskrant, a national daily in the Netherlands. “For the Dutch fans who travel around the world, he’s the No. 1 guy.”
Though Davis has a reputation as a lone wolf he’s exceptionally accessible to his fans, especially children. “If you want to talk about someone that does a great job with kids, that’s Shani Davis,” says teammate Patrick Meek.
But when it comes to skating Davis usually prefers to go solo, often training separately from his teammates without a coach. “This is my individual Games,” he says. “This is how I like to do things. Sometimes you will see me on my own and sometimes with the team. It depends.”
Davis was hung with the loner label in Turin when he bypassed the team pursuit and was ripped by teammate Chad Hedrick, who said the US would have won the gold with Davis in the chase. Last time in Vancouver his colleagues won silver without him and without incident.
This time Davis says he’ll be happy to step in if coach Ryan Shimabukuro taps him for duty. “I’ve had discussions with the coach and it’s up to him to find the best skaters,” he says. “I’m sure they will put me in and I have no problem with it. It’s a great opportunity for the team.”
Other than Davis, the pursuit is the only other serious medal chance the men have. They finished 16-19-20 in Saturday’s 5,000 and an all-time worst 24-26-27 in Monday’s 500 and have no chance in next week’s 10,000 against the Dutch, who likely will sweep the event as they did the 500 and 5,000.
They won’t sweep the 1,000 or 1,500, though, where Davis, who was depleted coming into Turin and Vancouver, is firing on all cylinders here. “He is in better form than four years ago,” says Tuitert. “When you look into his eyes you can see he copes better with the pressure.”
Davis, who’s making his fourth trip to Olympus (he was a short-track alternate in 2002), long ago accepted the weight of expectation. “I learned how to deal with it,” he says. “The higher the reward, the more pressure. That’s how I look at it.”
When Kazakh rival Denis Kuzin beat Davis in the 1,000 at last year’s world single distance championships here, he was given a two-bedroom apartment. If he does it here, Kuzin says, “I think I would be given the whole of Kazakhstan.”
While a three-peat would be a unique legacy, just being on the top step of the stand again would be a thrill for Davis. “Any medal, man, is something to be proud of,” he says. “It’s just I’m spoiled and I have two of the best ones and that’s what I always aim for because there’s nothing that tops that feeling. Being on the top of that podium, having that medal go around your neck is just a tremendous feeling. That’s what I strive for and hopefully I can fulfill my hunger on Wednesday.”