Shani Davis Sets His Sights On a Gold Saturday!

Since he graduated from high school here Davis has skated competitively in virtually every corner of the globe—China, South Korea, Russia, the Netherlands, Germany—but ask him about running track in high school and he recalls it like it was yesterday. It’s the summer of 2005 and Davis is in Marquette for short track training and classes at NMU. He’s seated in his favorite Marquette restaurant, The Rice Paddy, a Thai place where his long legs take up two-thirds of the floor space. Owner Aoy LaChapelle cooks, takes orders and greets most customers in her Thai accent as Boyfriend and Girlfriend. Except Davis. LaChappelle calls him, one of her favorite customers, Brown Sugar, and keeps a photo of the two of them tacked to the wall, along with snapshots of his buddies Ohno and short track Olympian Rusty Smith, both of whom Davis has brought here to eat.

As Davis talks, LaChapelle clanks pans in the small galley kitchen around the corner, and the room fills with the smell of frying garlic. “Oh man, track is the hardest thing in the world. You don’t have any glide,” he says. “At the state meet the coach said kick it at the 300. I kicked it at the 300 and died. I was furious. It’s okay,” he laughs. “I made a lot of friends and stuff running track, so it was cool.”

In retrospect, the intense first experience with small town sports was probably good training for Davis. Less than two years later, the athletic brouhaha surrounding Davis at the U.S. Speedskating short track trials for the 2002 Olympics would be much worse. Davis was 19, and it was his first Olympic trials. By the last race of the week he was in eighth place. Only the top six skaters would make the team. Davis was in the running for that sixth slot—if he could beat everyone in the last race, including stars Ohno and Rusty Smith. Davis’s chances weren’t, however, as much of a long shot as they seemed. The race was the 1000-meter, an event for which he held the current American record. When the gun went off, Davis folded his 6’2? frame into perfect form and won the race.

Not only did he make his first Olympic team but also he was the first African-American to make a short track Olympic team. His glory, however, was short lived. The skater he beat for the sixth position filed a grievance, alleging that Ohno and Smith had thrown the race so Davis could make the team. By the time the winter games came in February the controversy had made it into the press, where Davis read about his win as “improbable” and “tarnished.” He left Salt Lake before the games were over, demoralized and feeling unsupported—shunned even—by U.S. Speedskating officials.

Eventually the grievance was thrown out. Ohno and Smith, whose points by that last race already assured them a place on the team, said they held back so as not to risk injury. And no one could dispute Davis’s lightning performance.

Davis came out of the experience determined not to be bitter but to win. Watching the young athlete tell the story, you can almost see that alchemy in process. He chooses his words carefully, spinning negative into positive, bitterness into fuel for the ice.

“I learned to try not to get involved with things you can’t control. I can control my performance,” Davis says. And he controls where he trains. Davis chooses to train short track in Marquette, instead of Colorado Springs, U.S. Speedskating’s official training site. And since Marquette doesn’t have a long track rink, Davis goes to Calgary, Canada.

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