- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 19, 2006

TURIN, Italy — In an impressive display of speed and endurance, long track skater Shani Davis yesterday won his best event, the 1,000 meters, fulfilling a childhood dream and becoming the first male black athlete to win a gold medal at the Winter Olympics.

After recording a time of 1 minute, 8.89 seconds and clutching a teddy bear, Davis drew a standing ovation from the fans inside Oval Lingotto, especially from a fun-loving, rowdy, orange-clad Dutch contingent that reveres speed skating and adores Davis.

Afterward, the 23-year-old Davis talked about how he envisioned this moment from the time he was 6 and how he hopes this might inspire the kids back home in Evanston, Ill., near Chicago, and kids in other places, too, to try to chase the same dream.

Also, Joey Cheek, who already won the gold in the 500 meters and who donates his winnings to charity, won the silver medal with a time of 1:09.16, making it a 1-2 finish for the Americans. Veteran Dutch skater Erben Wennemars, a picture of whom adorns Davis’ refrigerator, took the bronze in 1:09.32.

It all made for a great story. A nice story, a heartwarming, feel-good tale of determination and inspiration. A classic Olympic moment.

If only it were that simple.

Instead, it threatened to lapse into another episode of the continuing drama, “As the Speedskating World Turns.”

Davis and Chad Hedrick are the two big names on the U.S. long track team. Besides competing together in their first Olympics (Davis was on the 2002 short track team but did not race, a sore spot to this day) they are not, let’s say, the best of friends.

Davis is a Chicagoan who has dedicated his life to speed skating. Hedrick is a Texan, relatively new to the sport after making a big name for himself wearing in-line skates. Not that being chummy is a prerequisite (this is an individual sport, as has been mentioned a few times), but the temperature between them has been dropping precipitously lately.

Davis’ decision to forego the new team pursuit event on Wednesday left Hedrick riled up. The U.S. team lost in the quarterfinals, and Hedrick, who did compete, was denied a chance at a gold medal. After the race, he made no secret of saying he would do anything to help his team. As opposed to those who would not.

Also, the extra rest purportedly gave Davis an advantage over Hedrick in the 1,000 meters. Hedrick is better at longer distances (he won the gold in the 5,000 meters last week), and the 1,000 is his worst event. Davis, meanwhile, was favored. But the fact that Hedrick raced in the pursuit and Davis did not was of no help to Hedrick, who ended up sixth.

After Davis’ victory, Hedrick was asked whether competing in the pursuit hurt him in the 1,000 meters.

“I don’t think about what it cost me,” he said. “I was part of Team USA. That’s what I qualified for. I’m gonna do whatever it takes to make my team as strong as we can be. I didn’t care about how it was gonna affect my individual race. I care about being part of the team. I owe it to them.”

Hmmm.

Then Hedrick was asked whether he said anything to his gold-medal winning teammate after the race.

“I never spoke with Shani,” he said, adding, “I’m happy for Joey. Joey’s been skating well all month. … Shani skated fast today. That’s about all I have to say about that.”

Ouch.

Davis said there has been no “drama” between himself and Hedrick in the Olympic Village this week but little contact, either.

“He’s on the top floor, I’m on the first floor,” Davis said. “He minds his business, I mind my business.”

Cheek, who probably would be named Mr. Nice Guy among all U.S. Olympians if such a vote were taken, hugged Davis immediately after the race — “almost as big as my mama’s hug,” Davis said — and effusively praised him. On the matter of the pursuit race, Cheek said, “Shani’s got to do what’s best for him.”

But Davis, who is known as something of a rebel, was not exactly embraced by the rest of the U.S. team in attendance. He has disassociated himself from U.S. Speedskating over sponsorship issues, and both he and his mother have criticized the organization. Davis even has referred to the group as “the enemy.”

In the wake of the of pursuit controversy, Davis has been portrayed as distant and aloof. Maybe, for the most part, he is. But after his victory, he was in a chipper mood. When asked about the reception from the Dutch as opposed to his teammates, he said it was a long day for everyone “and they can always congratulate me later.”

Immediately asked about the controversy, Davis tried to explain. He said it was a combination of not wanting to take someone else’s spot like what happened to him in 2002 and the lateness of the notification that might have affected his race in the 1,000 meters.

Nothing, he said, would deter him from reaching that goal.

“Ever since I was a kid, I used to joke around with my friends and say, ‘I want to win the thousand meters,’” Davis said. “I was thinking about having that opportunity to chase that dream. It was kind of a conflict of interest because all my life it was about individual events.”

Davis said he had prequalified for the 1,000, 1,500 and 5,000 meters, but other skaters were on the team to race in the pursuit.

“And I’ll say this 100 times,” he said. “After 2002, when I wasn’t able to partake in anything, I told myself I would never, ever take anyone else’s opportunity to skate at the Olympic Games if I had things I was going for.”

And he didn’t.


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