As a kid, Shani Davis always wanted to be the fastest skater on the ice. He didn’t care about ribbons or trophies or medals.
He’s picked up quite a few of those during his stellar speedskating career, although the ensuing acclaim and hoopla never appealed to him either.
Now 35, Davis is heading to his fifth Olympics, searching for the kind of speed that would get him on the podium and burnish his legacy as one of the sport’s all-time greats.
“I still want to win, I still want to be the best in the world,” he said. “I still have fun, I still enjoy it.”
Davis was the first black athlete to win an individual gold medal at the Winter Games, and this time he won’t be the only person of color on the U.S. team.
Erin Jackson joins him on the long-track squad, while Maame Biney is the second black speedskater to make the short-track team. Davis set the standard there, too, qualifying for his first Olympics in short track in 2002, although he didn’t compete in Salt Lake City.
“You’ve inspired me and paved the way,” Biney tweeted to Davis recently.
Davis captured gold in the 1,000 meters at the Turin and Vancouver Games. He owns a pair of silver medals in the 1,500, too.
Those are precious memories.
He wants to banish the bad ones from Sochi.
Four years ago, the Americans failed to win any medals at the big oval for the first time since 1984. Davis finished eighth in the 1,000 and 11th in the 1,500. He was 24th in the 500, using the event as a warm-up for his two strongest distances.
Those results left Davis pondering his future in the sport he’s loved since he first started skating as a 6-year-old in his hometown of Chicago.
But he rebounded to earn a world title in the 1,000 in 2015. Then he struggled during the recent World Cup season, finishing no higher than 12th in four 1,000 races.
“It’s just getting back to that moment and having that opportunity to exceed on the highest levels of competitiveness at the Olympics,” he said. “Everyone is really motivated to go back and compete at the highest level and try to bring home medals. We’re definitely a force.”
In his own understated way, so is Davis to his less experienced teammates.
“He looks after the younger people like me and gives great advice. He’s not selfish at all,” two-time Olympian Emery Lehman said. “He’ll go out of his way to help you out and having someone like him there is really good for the team. It also shows how hard he’s willing to fight to bounce back from Sochi. Seeing that kind of influences the rest of us to keep our heads up and keep grinding.”
Davis is an anomaly in the sport. He has trained separately from the U.S. team for years, including stints in South Korea and the Netherlands, and goes without a coach. He sets his own training regimen and takes care of a body that isn’t as quick to bounce back at his age.
“I never used to worry about these things when I was young,” he said. “Everything becomes more urgent when you start weighing the negatives over the positives.”
At last month’s U.S. trials, Davis finished second in the 1,000 behind Joey Mantia. Davis finished third in the 1,500.
“I’ve seen them skating really fast and I’m like, ‘OK, I can skate fast too, but they’re even skating faster and what am I going to do?'” he said of his fellow Americans. “I’m just going to put my head down and I’m going to do the work. I’m going to go out there and fight.”
That blue-collar mentality is something Davis has honed going back to his childhood. He didn’t always have the best skates or skinsuit, but he had a singular determination and the love and support of his mother, Cheri.
“I’m just honored that I can still be strong enough at this day and age, with all the things that have been going on with me and my skating, the ups and downs, be able to keep a solid head,” he said, “and staying motivated and believing in myself and not being discouraged or easily defeated.”