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Decision time looms for American speedskater Shani Davis

The Chicago speedskater is an icon in Europe, with Olympic and World Cup wins, but as Americans tune in to his fourth Olympics, Shani Davis feels he let them down. Now he must look to his future.

February 15, 2014|By Philip Hersh
  • American speedskateer Shani Davis and Poland's Zbigniew Brodka skate together while checking the clock to see their times in the 1,500 meters on Saturday at the Sochi Olympics.
American speedskateer Shani Davis and Poland's Zbigniew Brodka… (Ryan Pierse / Getty Images )

SOCHI, Russia — Shani Davis understands.

He is saying hello just when he might be saying goodbye.

In his fourth Olympics, Davis knows he finally has the attention of an American public that pays attention to his sport only a week or two every four years.

So it pains the 31-year-old from Chicago that they are not seeing Shani Davis the champion, the skater who has won Olympic titles, world titles and a zillion World Cup races, the skater who long has been an icon in Europe, especially the Netherlands.

FRAMEWORK: Best images from Sochi

"It kills me inside to know that the attention I am getting now is the thing I've always wanted since 2002 — to be a speedskater Americans knew, loved, followed and cheered for," Davis said after another disappointing finish in Sochi. "But I come away with nothing to show them and give back to them and say thank you for believing in me and following me. So I am really disappointed not only for myself — that I couldn't meet my expectations — but for the people that have been watching, that I couldn't do more for them."

Davis stood for 15 minutes Saturday night in the media zone below the ice at Adler Arena, patiently answering question after question about the controversy involving the allegedly revolutionary skin suits that seemed to have slowed down U.S. skaters. He is among those who expected to win medals on a team that has none.

Three days earlier, Davis had worn the new suit and finished eighth in the 1,000, the race he won at the last two Olympics. On Saturday, he switched back to the suit worn during his four World Cup wins this season and finished 11th in Saturday's 1,500 meters, a race in which he had been second the past two Olympics.

This might have been the last individual race of his Olympic career, possibly his last, period. Although Davis expects to be in the team pursuit Friday, he said coaches have yet to make that decision.

"Obviously, it's sad," teammate Joey Mantia said. "I just don't think that was Shani's best, for whatever reason."

It was bitterly ironic that it took place among another of the controversies that have followed Davis, because this one was entirely not of his making. Maybe that is why he answered a final question about the skin suits after a US Speedskating official tried to cut off discussion.

"We need to get the facts right," Davis said.

No one got the facts right when teammate Chad Hedrick stirred up animosity at the 2006 Olympics in all but accusing Davis of treason for withdrawing from the team pursuit. Two weeks later, Tom Cushman, 2006 Olympic men's long-track coach, told me Davis had been done an injustice because the federation hid the fact he was never among the men it entered for the race.

That incident altered the U.S. public's perception of Davis for years. He would not try to change any minds for a long time, deciding instead to share almost nothing about any subject to U.S. media until this season.

"[Americans] should appreciate him for the champion he is," said Dutch skater Mark Tuitert, 2010 Olympic champion in the 1,500 who finished fifth Saturday. "Athletes like Shani are one of a kind.

"He will be remembered as one of the greatest skaters ever. It has been an honor to skate with him and against him."

Tuitert's words had the sound of a valedictory, and that was appropriate. It is hard to imagine Davis continuing if he no longer feels capable of competing with the best in his sport, and doubts have crept into his mind after what happened here.

Was it him? Was it the suit? Was it the distractions and loss of confidence caused by the uproar?

Davis will be 35 in 2018. No man older than 34 has won an Olympic title in long-track speedskating. Just two have won medals.

"When you have these performances, you start questioning if you've still got what it takes," he said. "After things calm down, we'll see what I have left and make a decision for next season."

If the 1,500 was his last Olympic race, Davis said he will be content, even if this wasn't what he hoped for.

"I would have loved to have a medal in one of my last Olympic races, finishing with the cherry on top," he said. "I have all the bells and whistles, but I just didn't get any from Sochi."

phersh@tribune.com

Twitter @olyphil

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