On a December morning in 2005, under a gray sky flecked with powder flakes, the greatest all-around speedskater on the planet stands outside the Super 8 Motel in Marquette, where he’s staying during the U.S. Olympic short track speedskating trials for the 2006 Olympics in Turin.
Shani Davis is wearing a dull green and purple plaid wool Yooper jacket over his hip-athlete blue sweatpants, red hooded sweatshirt and wooden bead necklace. Davis bought the coat at the discount store Shopko when he rolled into town the other day. “I like it,” he said, a grin breaking up his serious game-day expression. “I wanted to fit in.”
Style and otherwise, Davis always follows his heart, and in the case of speedskating, that usually means upsetting the status quo. He is an African-American in a mostly all-white sport. And he refuses to specialize in either of the two speedskating disciplines—long track and short track—as most athletes do. Last February (2005) in Moscow he became the World Allround Speedskating Champion. In November (2006) he broke the world 1,000-meter long track record. He’s already secured a seat on the 2006 Olympic long track team in Torino where he is expected to medal.As if that is not enough, this week at the short track speedskating trials he is attempting to be the first American to make the long and short track Olympic teams in the same year. By daring to try, Davis has put himself under world-class pressure. Make it, and he’s the toast of the Olympics. Miss the short track team, and he’ll have to earn his fanfare by medaling in the long track. But luckily for Davis, tonight he will have an edge. When he skates out onto the flawless, moon-colored ice sheet at Marquette’s Berry events center, suited up in skin suit, pads and helmet, he is on home ice.
Granted, Davis doesn’t make it to Marquette all that much anymore. His address is Chicago, where he was born and where his mother Cherie still lives. He also trains part of the year for long track in Calgary, Canada, and his racing schedule takes him around the world. The speedskater usually only stays in Marquette in the summer for short track training and to go to school at Northern Michigan University. He doesn’t own real estate here or even rent a house. Yet, he calls this Lake Superior town home. Marquette has been a touchstone for Davis since he attended high school here while he was living and training at the Olympic Education Center at Northern Michigan University.
As he takes his place at the starting line for the start of the men’s nine-lap time trial, the announcer for this week’s competition, local sports personality Scot Fure, rolls out the word Olympian before Davis’s name with a special flourish. The crowd answers with a roar. Not a bring-down-the-stadium kind of thunder—this is, after all the U.P., a land of understated Finns—but it is louder than the cheer short track superstar Apolo Ohno received a couple of minutes ago when he streaked around the ice.
After a long and bumpy road to find it, Davis has a hometown to cheer for him.
Cherie started Shani Davis on speedskates when he was 6—he’d been racing around the local roller rink since he was 2. The Davises lived on Chicago’s south side, but there is no ice rink there, so Cherie, a single mother whose only child is Davis, drove him across Chicago to Evanston for practice and races. Training, equipment and travel were expensive. “If I kept track of the costs it might have scared me off,” she says. So she did her best to ignore the finances, and when Davis needed something she just bought it.
Later they moved to the north side of the city to be closer to Evanston’s rink. The long car rides were over, but Davis’s sport still wedged him between two worlds. In Evanston he was one of only a few African-American skaters on the ice. In Chicago he was the kid who didn’t play basketball or football.
In 1996, the summer Davis turned 14, he watched his two worlds collide. Andrew Young, a white speedskater from Evanston whom Davis knew, was murdered in the Rogers Park area not far from where Davis lived. Young and his twin brother had cruised to the corner of Howard and Clark Streets where they got into a verbal altercation with a young man who turned out to be a new recruit for the Latin Kings gang. Within moments, in broad daylight, the gang member pulled out a handgun and fired. Young died in his brother’s arms. It shook Davis badly. “My friends were getting shot,” he says.
In his junior year Davis was ranked high enough nationally to be accepted into the Lake Placid Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, New York, where he would also attend the local high school. He would get the training he needed—and get out of Chicago’s big-city schools with their big-city problems. But Lake Placid had its own troubles for Davis.
On one of his first days there, Davis called to tell his mother that some of the speedskaters had trashed his room. Not long afterward, Davis was practicing on the rink and within his earshot several skaters started “talking trash,” Cherie says. “They were talking about what they do to black people back home and referring to the N word,” she says. Eventually, the skater who’d instigated the conversation wrote Davis an apology letter—Cherie still has it. But there were other incidents with racial implications. When the Davises felt officials at the Lake Placid Olympic Training Center and U.S. Speedskating, the national governing body for the sport, weren’t supportive enough, relations between them soured.
After Davis skipped an English class at Lake Placid High School, U.S. Speedskating pulled him out of the program. Cherie says she got the word two days before the program was to end anyway, and she’d already had his plane ticket home booked. “I asked if he could just stay two more days,” she says. “They told me no. That they’d call the police or send him to a shelter. It was horrible.”
Asked now about his experience with Davis, Tracy Lamb, associate director at the Lake Placid Olympic Training Center, simply says Davis “worked very hard” during his time there and was with a number of stellar athletes.
The next year, Davis was admitted to the Olympic Education Center in Marquette. He would live with other athletes in dorms at Northern Michigan University and attend Marquette’s public high school. Davis arrived in 1999, the fall of his senior year. No one made a fuss over him when he arrived, but he wasn’t a target either. He began to trust Jeff Kleinschmidt, the director of the Olympic Education Center who was born and raised in Iron Mountain. And Davis liked the center’s academic coordinator, Tony Tollefson, who refers to himself as a Lake Wobegon (i.e., Minnesota) Tollefson turned Yooper.
That year Davis made both the long and short track Junior World Speedskating Teams. When his speedskating wound to a close, track season at his new high school had started, and Davis decided to give it a try. He’d never run track before, but he went at the sport in his typical whole-hearted style.Marquette high school track coach Matt Edgell recalls Davis’s long running stride—“One of the longest I’ve ever seen.” And he says Davis was a crackup, always looking for a chance to laugh. But mostly he remembers Davis’s work ethic. Davis had to stay after school to take an extra class to make up for the time he’d missed during the skating season, so he made it to track practice late every day. Without complaining, Edgell recalls, Davis started the team’s scheduled workout from scratch, finishing alone on an empty track 45 minutes after his teammates had gone home. “Everybody thought he was just good because he was big and had this stride. Nobody actually knew how dedicated he was,” Edgell says.
Kleinschmidt’s son, Justin, was also a senior that year, and the two boys became friends—and one-half of a 1600-meter relay team that set a U.P. record. As the season drew to a close, the Marquette High School track team—a team that hadn’t won a conference meet in 10 years—qualified for the Upper Peninsula State Meet (Upper Peninsula schools have their own state meet). Davis became a hometown hero.
The day of the state meet Davis was entered in the 4-by-800 relay, the 4-by-400 relay, the mile and the 800-meter run. Davis gave everything he had in the first three events. He was exhausted, but Marquette had the state track title within its sights. If the team could win the 800, they had the meet. Edgell told Davis to kick it in 300 meters before the finish line—Davis usually saved his kick for the final 200 meters.
Davis did as the coach told him. And the title looked assured, until Davis collapsed—completely drained of steam—just shy of the finish line. In the frenzy a runner from another school slipped past. Marquette lost the U.P. state title to Escanaba by two points.
No one, not Coach Edgell, not Davis, not anyone on the team ever said a word about the devastating end to a glorious season.
When Davis turned in his uniform at the end of the meet, Edgell recalls Davis saying: “This was the most fun I’ve ever had and the best team I’ve ever been on.”
“And here I am, just this track coach from Marquette, Michigan, and this kid is a champion,” says Edgell. “I love that kid.”
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.
The separation with U.S. Speedskating has not helped Davis’s feelings toward the organization. Although Davis currently sits on the U.S. Speedskating board as an athlete representative, he, along with several other skaters, is again embroiled in a controversy with the organization. This time over sponsorship contracts.
Over a heaping plate of LaChapelle’s stir fry, Davis talks about being an Olympian and a college student. His day starts at 5:30 a.m. with ice time and then a workout. After classes, there is more training and workouts. Despite that schedule, Davis, a college junior now, is doing well in school and says he wants to be a teacher someday. Maybe a professor.
The BJ Stupak Scholarship, a federal program that sends Olympic hopefuls to college, has largely funded Davis’s education. The program is named for the son of Bart Stupak, the U.P. congressman who worked for more than 10 years to launch it. Tragically, in 2000, just as the congressman’s efforts came to fruition, BJ killed himself; a suicide the family believes was linked to emotional side effects from the acne drug Accutane.
Rocked back in one of LaChapelle’s metal chairs so that its front legs are just off the ground, Davis tells how it dawned on him recently, on an errand through the Superior Dome, just who BJ was. “He passed away. I was looking at pictures on the wall at the dome there. He was born in ’82 like me. That’s really sad,” he says, letting the legs of his chair down and leaning forward in his seat. Bart Stupak “has given other kids that opportunity that he probably would have given his son to be able to do schooling and compete. I think that’s really great of him. It shows that he has a big heart.”
Davis has a big heart, too. He works with a group of young inner city speedskaters in Washington, D.C.. In return, the kids write poetry about him and hang it on the rink walls.
When he can, Davis tries to return the support Kleinschmidt and Tollefson have given him over the years. The skater calls them his extended family. This past November Davis called Kleinschmidt to tell him when he’d be in Marquette for the trials. Kleinschmidt mentioned that he’d be speaking about the Olympic Education Center to the Marquette Rotary Club at noon on Monday, November 28. If Davis happened to be in town by then, he’d love to bring him along.
On November 20, Davis broke the world 1000-meter record in Salt Lake City. Among other things the accomplishment made him USA Today’s athlete of the week, and garnered him a two-page color spread in Sports Illustrated. The following Sunday, Davis secured his place on the Olympic long track team with a win at a World Cup race in Milwaukee. That night, he and his mom rented a car and drove to Marquette. They pulled in at 2 a.m.—so Davis could make his noon appointment to talk to the Rotarians with Kleinschmidt.
“He told them that when he first came to Marquette he didn’t really care about school, but that this summer he got A’s in all his classes,” Kleinschmidt says. “And that his only problem at Northern is that every time he takes a new class, he wants to change his major.”
It was a vintage Shani Davis moment, and on the final night of the Olympic trials Marquette is treated to another one. It had been a week of errors for Davis. On Tuesday he nicked something on the ice, which damaged his blade and pushed him down to eighth place. On Friday, a third-place finish in the 500 meter put him back in the running. On this final night, he can make the five-man Olympic team if he comes in second in the 1000 meter semis. Fighting from the middle of a tight pack he catches a blade on a rubber marker, stumbles, then crashes face first. He never catches up. At sixth place overall, he has not made the short track team. He will compete at the Olympics in long track only.
Davis steps off the ice and hugs Anthony Lobello, the competitor who’d beat him out for the final spot on the team. Later, like the hometown hero he is, Davis skates a victory lap, waving to the stands filled with Upper Peninsula fans who cheer until their throats are dry.
Davis makes no excuses. He just didn’t make it—and he’s already looking ahead to Torino and the long track. Back in Marquette, they’ll be watching.
This article was published in the February 2006 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.