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Sunday, February 14, 2010
A kinder, gentler Davis

By Melissa Isaacson
ESPNChicago.com

At some point during the two-week made-for-television miniseries otherwise known as the Winter Olympics, various sports like long-track speedskating will cross our screens and viewers will be faced with the same choice as always.

Give it a chance, or change the channel and see if Tyrus Thomas is still on the bench.

If given a chance -- and really, long-track is about as complex to grasp as Candyland, though arguably more exciting -- viewers, as they were Saturday, will be treated to the 6-foot-2, 185-pound blur that is Chicago's Shani Davis, a skater of unparalleled speed and grace.

Davis
Chicago native Shani Davis placed 12th in the 5,000-meter speedskaing event at the Winter Olympics.

And Davis will have a choice, too.

Skating fast is a given. The 27-year-old is already a gold and silver Olympic medalist and the reigning world-record-holder in the 1,000- and 1,500-meters, two of his four events in which he will be a prohibitive favorite in Vancouver.

But how Davis chooses to experience these Games and then project himself to the outside world is up to him, and will likely determine how the casual sports fan remembers him and his sport.

I was pleased to watch him Saturday after covering him in Torino and over the years from time to time. The 5,000 was not his event, and he said he correctly predicted his time, which was good for 12th place.

The NBC interview afterward was pleasant and even good-humored. That he agreed to it all is a positive and can only help enhance his visibility in this country with those who did not know him before, while repairing his image with those who did.

Davis has given every indication that he does not care about such things. He chooses not to be included in the U.S. speedskating media guide. He did not attend the U.S. media summit in Chicago, which helps reporters covering the games get to know Olympic athletes. In the past, at least in the U.S., he has often chosen not to be interviewed at all if he can possibly help it. He says he only seeks attention from skating fast.

In fact, just writing about his image would no doubt offend Davis, and has very possibly sent his fiercely protective mother, Cherie -- who is acutely aware of everything said or written about her son -- scurrying to write a scathing e-mail in reply. Clearly, she has aided the perception of Shani as an angry young man.

The New York Times Sunday Magazine recently sent writer Michael Sokolove to Amsterdam and Salt Lake City for an in-depth piece on Davis. After being made to wait for his subject several hours past their agreed interview time in Utah, Sokolove received a call from Cherie.

"Why are you bothering my son?" she demanded. Sokolove told her he was simply waiting for their interview.

"He doesn't want to talk to you," she said.

An hour later, Davis appeared and talked about the solitary dedication he gives to a sport in which he largely coaches himself.

With all the nonsense that goes on among various national sports federations, including U.S. speedskating -- which distinguished itself recently by refusing to credential the personal coaches of five of its athletes in Vancouver -- you can at least try to understand why Davis has distanced himself, and maybe even admire his courage in carving out his own path.

It is his career, after all.

But his U.S. teammates don't have to love him for it. After Davis' first Olympic gold in 2006, the usually soft-spoken Casey FitzRandolph, a gold-medal-winner in speedskating in 2002, lashed out when asked if he thought Davis felt satisfaction with his victory, given his "us-against-the-world" attitude.

"If he feels it's him against the rest of the world," FitzRandolph said, "he's the one that has pitted himself against the rest of the world."

To narrow down Davis' controversies and disputes to just the Olympic years, his most notable came in '06, when he opted out of the new team pursuit event, hurting the U.S. team's medal chances (they did not medal) and specifically denying teammate and rival Chad Hedrick a shot at what was then considered a realistic goal of tying Eric Heiden's record five gold medals.

Davis said he never committed to the event and felt it would compromise his individual hopes. It wasn't a completely unreasonable feeling, though everyone else on the team shared a different attitude. But Davis was defensive and hostile, and his actions were widely interpreted as trying to hurt Hedrick.

And then there's the whole Dutch thing.

Why Davis has found it necessary to seek refuge with the speedskaters and their fans in the Netherlands, even hiring a Dutch agent, is puzzling. Just as puzzling as Cherie's penchant for dressing in the Netherlands' national colors at her son's competitions for the past several years, and declaring war on everyone from any American sportswriter who mentions Shani's name to the most beloved and legendary figures in the sport, even the exceptionally nice Heiden and Bonnie Blair, both of whom seem literally frightened to even mention Davis' name.

It's not easy to parlay Olympic success into major endorsement opportunities and lasting fame; harder still for Winter Olympians. After his five golds in 1980, Heiden actually shunned most endorsements, even though many felt he could have attained a commercial status only Summer Olympians Mark Spitz and Bruce Jenner had previously achieved.

But Heiden did serve as a television analyst for four Olympics, became an orthopedic surgeon like his father and is now the team doctor for the U.S. speedskating team. And his popularity and Q rating remain high.

"It's because he's a class act to this day," said Dave Cruikshank, Northbrook native and four-time Olympic speedskater who now runs a performance training center for hockey players in Milwaukee and will have been married to Blair for 14 years this summer. "He's intelligent, a professional in his professional world, a success in his athletic world; just a genuine, down-to-earth guy, and that's what sells in the marketing community -- respectability and sustainability.

"The definition of a star is different in different peoples' eyes. It's about community service, about becoming a better man or woman through your sport. Speedskating has a fabulous history of people who go on to become doctors and lawyers. But to each his own on what a star is."

Davis, who said he looks forward to the day when he can spend more time with his 2-year-old son, could be a star. No one, not even the awe-inspiring Heiden, was as graceful on the ice as Davis, who also credits his short-track roots for his ability to take corners without a hint of slowing down.

Davis is good-looking and -- when he wants to be, as in his interview with Andrea Kremer on Saturday -- quite personable. When he doesn't, however, you get results like the infamous Melissa Stark interview in Torino, when, after his gold-medal win in the 1,000, he barely looked at Stark, and was so terse he prompted the NBC reporter to ask, "Are you angry, Shani?"

After accepting his medal the following night in a blinding snowstorm in the Piazza Castello, Davis told a few of us braving the elements that he was curt to Stark because he had to go to the bathroom. He also claimed to know nothing about NBC's offer to let him do a studio interview later that they offered to use in place of the other.

In an interview with Jet magazine the following month, Davis explained it a bit differently, saying he wanted to celebrate with his mother right away. Also, that he was annoyed at Stark for paying more attention to Hedrick.

"I saw her all week in Chad's [face] because he won the first gold medal," Davis said. "I would see her every day, and [she] wouldn't have a word to say to me, not even a word. So when she tried this, 'Oh my gosh,' and all this stuff, I was just real short, I didn't have anything to say to her because I saw the way she was with Chad and I didn't have any respect for her. I had no intentions [of] talking to NBC at all, but they [the USOC] forced me to."

Or you get Davis calling U.S. speedskating benefactor and -- some would say -- savior Stephen Colbert a "jerk" (for Colbert's mock hatred of Canada) before letting his guard down and taking part in a skit on "The Colbert Report" last month on Comedy Central.

So maybe Davis is developing a sense of humor. Better yet, he seems to be realizing that he was only affecting his experience by letting everything else bug him.

His former coach, Bob Fenn, said in a phone interview this week that after recently showing Davis a well-made and relatively inexpensive ($160) pair of clap skates, Davis pledged to donate 10 pairs to the Evanston Club where he used to train.

"To me that shows a lot of heart and a lot of thought for kids whose parents don't have that kind of money," Fenn said. "He wants to keep the club alive and going. Let's face it, you know there are approximately 560,000 black kids ages 10-12 in the city of Milwaukee alone. In other words, tap the resource. And that's just one city. There has got to be other Shanis out there."

All the more reason it's great to hear from Davis that these Olympics are going to be different, positive.

At 27, maybe he finally gets it.