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Speedskating to his own tune


The United States' Shani Davis skates to a win and new world record in the 1000m World Cup speedskating race last month at the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns, Utah.
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
The United States' Shani Davis skates to a win and new world record in the 1000m World Cup speedskating race last month at the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns, Utah. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Paul Newberry Associated Press

Most black kids growing up on Chicago’s South Side in the 1980s and ‘90s wanted to soar through the air like M.J. or take handoffs for Da Bears. Shani Davis had other ideas.

A couple of times a week, he climbed into a car with his doting mother for the one-hour-and-then-some commute to the north side, where he would don a pair of skates, snuggle into a tight-fitting suit and try to go faster than anyone else on the ice.

Davis’ friends struggled to make sense of it all, turning to those familiar weapons of childhood. Ridicule. Scorn. Humiliation.

They doled out derogatory terms about his sexuality, called him an “Oreo” for hanging with all those white people at the rink. They wondered why someone of obvious athletic ability would pass up the chance to shoot hoops or run with the football – especially during such a glorious era in the Windy City’s sporting life.

Speedskating? What’s that?

“It was pretty derogatory stuff, especially at that young of an age,” Davis recalled. “But what I was doing was so different. Now, when I see some of those same people, they truly respect what I do. A lot of them say they’re sorry for what they said. I don’t hold it against them. They just didn’t know anything about it.”

The 23-year-old Davis still skates to his own tune, an inner-city interloper who has stirred things up in a close-knit, white-dominated sport.

“I always went against the grade,” he said. “I didn’t care what people said. That’s skin deep. I did what I like.”

Come February, despite having failed in his historic quest to qualify for both the short and long track teams, Davis could be one of the biggest American stars at the Turin Games.

For starters, his skin color ensures he will stand out – few blacks compete in any of the winter sports. Then there’s his prowess on the big oval – world record holder in the 1,000 meters, former holder of the 1,500 mark, already qualified for the Olympic team. He very well could return to his old ‘hood in Hyde Park with a gold medal or two hanging around his neck.

No matter what happens, Mom has his back.

Cherie Davis raised her only child as a single parent, got him involved in roller skating when he was 2 1/2 (“he would go a couple of laps, then ask for quarters so he could play the video games”), became his manager and closest confidante, and defiantly stands up to even the smallest of slights.

She’s had a long-running battle with U.S. Speedskating and the country’s Olympic hierarchy, believing they haven’t done enough to support her son. She doesn’t hesitate to rip off scathing e-mails to other skaters or their parents, warning them to stay out of Shani’s business. She claims her son endured all sorts of racial harassment from a white skating community that called him “boy” and was quick to disqualify him from races at the smallest sign of trouble.

“They turned up their nose and snubbed us,” Cherie Davis said. “Now, they want to be our friends. Well, I don’t want to be friends. I’ll be the bad guy. People always say, ‘Shani is really sweet, but ohhhh his mother.”’

Davis became the first black speedskater to make the U.S. Olympic team in 2002. He hardly had time to celebrate before another skater screamed fix, accusing Apolo Anton Ohno and Rusty Smith of conspiring to get their friend on the short track squad. The charges were tossed out and Davis stayed on the team, but he wasn’t picked to skate in Salt Lake City.

Over the past four years, Davis emerged as one of the world’s best long track skaters, his 6-foot-2, 185-pound frame better suited to racing against the clock on a big, sweeping oval. Still, he refused to give up short track, reveling in the excitement of pack racing on a tightly bunched hockey rink.

Earlier this month, having already qualified for the long track team through his strong World Cup performances, Davis tried to become the first American to make both speedskating squads at the same Olympics. It was a daunting challenge that left fellow skaters in awe.

“I tell people it’s like having a track cyclist go do road cycling,” Ohno said. “It’s two totally different sports. It’s crazy. I don’t know how he does it.”

Alas, Davis came up short at the short track trials in Marquette, Mich., earlier this month, winding up sixth in the overall standings – one spot away from making the five-man team.

He won’t even attend the U.S. long track championships, which begin Tuesday in Salt Lake City, preferring to begin his training in solitude rather than take part in a trials-style meet that will fill the remaining spots on the team.

Davis’ failure to qualify for short track could benefit his performance on the big oval. It will allow him to concentrate on the events where he has the best chance for medals.

“They always say when one door closes, another one opens,” Davis said. “It’s up to me to find it. Hopefully, all my experiences (at the short track trials) will motivate me. I had a grasp of my goal, and I fumbled it. I’ve got to make sure I catch it the next time. I can’t have any mistakes. I’ve got to master it.”

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