He looked downright content, a speedskater who knows his legacy is secure no matter what happens in Sochi.
“It still really hasn’t hit me that it’s the Olympics,” Davis said during a lengthy chat in the mixed zone after his brief workout. “I’m still just on autopilot, man.”
At age 31, he’ll be competing in his third Winter Games at this resort city along the Black Sea. Already a two-time champion in the 1,000 meters, Davis can become the first male speedskater to pull off a three-peat in the same event.
He wants the gold. Badly.
Yet it won’t ruin his life if he doesn’t get it.
“You train really hard. You try really hard to win,” Davis said. “If you win, great. If you don’t, you tried your best. You really can’t beat yourself up about it. There are so many people that train all their lives to win something or even just to get here, and a lot of people come away empty-handed. I’ll say it again: I’m very blessed to have the things that I have.”
What he has is impressive.
In addition to four Olympic medals — Davis also claimed silver in the 1,500 at both Turin and Vancouver — he’s one of only two men to win world championships in both sprint and all-around. The other is Eric Heiden, who skated in an era with less specialization.
“That’s an incredible achievement,” said Gerard Kemkers, a coach for the powerful Dutch team. “I think Shani is one of the greatest Olympians in American history.”
Davis didn’t always embrace that role, shying away from any attempts to turn him into a household name in the U.S. While his achievements were duly appreciated in the speedskating-crazy Netherlands, he was perhaps best-known in his own country for a feud with teammate Chad Hedrick. The dispute turned especially nasty after a race in Turin where they both won Olympic medals, prompting Davis to storm angrily off the podium, muttering “same ol’ Chad” on his way out the door.
“America still thinks in terms of Bonnie Blair and Dan Janzen and Eric Heiden,” Kemkers said, referring to three U.S. greats who came before Davis. “There has been quite a bit of controversy surrounding Shani because he stood up for things, which didn’t help his PR. It overshadowed a little bit the legacy he has as a skater.”
No longer. With Hedrick in retirement, Davis has become the undisputed leader of the U.S. team, even agreeing to skate team pursuit at the Olympics for the first time. Away from the ice, he’s been much more eager to take a starring role at Sochi, taking part in countless promotions for NBC’s coverage of the Winter Games back home. A sometimes-prickly relationship with the media has been completely amiable in the lead-up to Sochi.
“It comes with some responsibilities. It’s a light I haven’t been in before. But I embrace it,” Davis said. “I’m happy to be considered one of the faces (of the games) with all the other Winter Olympians who are here and held in that category. I guess I’m in good company. I can’t complain about it.”
Speedskating begins today with the 5,000 meters, an event that Davis skated at the last two Olympics but dropped from his program this time. His first event is Monday, the 500, but that is merely a tuneup for his two signature events.
His eyes are focused firmly on Wednesday’s 1,000, but he’s looking at it through the eyes of an Olympic veteran.
“I have the experience, so it doesn’t hit me the same way it did a few years ago,” Davis said. “I’m really content. I know what I’m here to do. I’m trying my best to do that. In due time, we’ll see what happens.”
The 1,500 follows on Feb. 15.
Davis refused to play favorites with his two signature events, even though he has come up just short of gold in the longer race at two straight Olympics.
“Those are my babies, man. I can’t love one more than the other,” he said, breaking into a big smile. “I’ve got two hands for two medals.”