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Davis eager to embrace starring role at Olympics

January 10, 2014

KEARNS, Utah (AP) — Shani Davis was a star at the last two Olympics.

Only now does he seem comfortable with the role.

As he heads into what could be his final Winter Games, the 31-year-old U.S. speedskater has finally embraced the spotlight and come to terms with the remarkable legacy he’ll leave behind no matter what happens in Sochi.

“It’s my time,” Davis said. “I’m going to try to take advantage of it, share myself and my story with the world as much as I can without it interfering with what I have to do.”

Next month, he will attempt to become the first male skater to win the same event at three straight Olympics, having captured gold in the 1,000 meters at both Turin and Vancouver. Also, he’s looking to improve on the pair of silver medals he settled for in the 1,500, switching up his training methods with the goal of peaking at just the right time.

Davis’ impact goes beyond gold and silver, though. He was the first black athlete to win an individual gold medal at the Winter Games, and he remains one of the few people of color at the oval. Growing up in Chicago, he passed on more traditional sports his friends played for the chance to go really fast with a pair of blades on his feet.

His journey has truly been remarkable, but for the longest time it wasn’t one Davis felt at ease sharing beyond his close circle of family and friends. He passed on sponsorship opportunities, turned down the chance to yuk it up on the talk-show circuit, ran hot and cold with the media. To many, he was as known as much for a feud with U.S. teammate Chad Hedrick, a five-time Olympic medalist, as for his impressive feats on the ice.

But it was a different Davis who dominated the recent U.S. speedskating trials in suburban Salt Lake City.

He bantered easily with reporters about his skating, his struggles with an iPad, his 6-year-old son. He played right along when someone asked whether he’d want to appear on “Dancing With The Stars” after the Olympics like his friend, retired short track star Apolo Anton Ohno.

“Hopefully Apolo would want to be my coach,” Davis said. “Maybe he can teach me how to dance a little bit, so I won’t feel so awkward when people pull me out to dance.”

Ohno definitely notices a change in Davis heading into the Sochi Games. He’s exposing himself more than ever, from taking a lead role in NBC’s pre-Olympic promotional barrage to signing on for a commercial with McDonald’s. He’s willing to reveal a playful side that Ohno has known about for years, but so many others never got a chance to see.

“Shani’s got a wonderful personality, but he was very closed off for a long, long time,” said Ohno, who will serve as an NBC analyst during the games. “He is understanding what the total package for becoming a champion is all about. It’s not just results. It’s everything that comes with it.”

Beyond his Olympic accomplishments, Davis has firmly established himself as one of the greatest speedskaters ever for the better part of a decade. He followed Eric Heiden as the only male to capture both the world allround and world sprint championships. Davis has 57 individual World Cup victories and a shot at passing the only man ahead of him on the career list, Canada’s Jeremy Wotherspoon with 67.

What makes that success even more impressive is Davis’ lone-wolf approach. For much of his professional career, he has essentially coached himself — setting up his own training regimen, plotting strategy in his head before races, getting in tune with what his body can and can’t do better than anyone else.

“The guy doesn’t have a coach,” Ohno marveled. “He says, ‘Today, I need to work on my speed. Tomorrow I’ll do some endurance. The next day I’ll do a little bit of strength. And I’ll take it easy the final day.’ Who does that? I could never do that.”

Davis is not ready to retire just yet, but he has no idea if he’ll still be skating four years down the road.

Now that he’s older than most of the guys he’s competing against, more work is required off the ice to make sure his body doesn’t break down. After tearing a groin muscle last season, Davis is mindful of things he used to take for granted: extra laps after a race to cool down, staying hydrated, always getting in the cold baths and massages that help him recover.

“I’m a race car,” Davis said mischievously. “I’ve got to put the best oil in it, get it tuned up, so on race day it goes the fastest.”

With that, he smiled.

It looked good on him.


Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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