Days before the Winter Olympics, where he figures to shine as one of the brightest U.S. stars, a call seeking comment from Shani Davis receives this message:
“You have reached the offices of Team Davis,” the voice says. “Sorry, but Shani will not be available to honor media requests at this time.”
Call Davis the anti-star.
Everything he does away from the ice ? at least in his home country ? would seem to indicate this amazing speedskater, the first African-American to win an individual gold medal at a winter games, has little desire to be famous. If anything, he seems to go out of his way to keep a low profile, in striking contrast to other American stars such as Apolo Anton Ohno.
But, as with most things Davis, that’s too simplistic a portrait.
He’s immensely popular in the speedskating hotbed of the Netherlands and seems to relish the attention he receives from the orange-clad Dutch fans. In fact, his mother, Cherie, is often decked out in orange when attending her son’s meets.
Davis is never the odd man out in a country which has long preferred individual pluck over servile team spirit.
“Here, that is really appreciated. The Dutch love that ? someone who doesn’t live by the rules, takes care of himself, gets by all on his own,” said Ruud Bakker, the leader of Kleintje Pils, a band that travels to most major skating meets and has serenaded the American for years.
Davis basically coaches himself, setting his own training schedule and deciding what works best for him. That means no mention in the U.S. Speedskating media guide, at his request. He has a Dutch agent but no apparent representation in the United States, perhaps missing out on this once-every-four-years chance to cash in on his Olympic exploits.
“I’m not sure he’s a really shy guy, but he keeps his friends close,” said Eric Heiden, who won a record five gold medals in 1980 and now serves as team doctor for the U.S. team. “He’s a hard guy sometimes to understand. But once you sort of get past that, he’s a very nice guy.”
Indeed, although Davis has largely shunned all U.S. media requests in the months leading up the Olympics, he spent nearly a half-hour chatting with The Associated Press before a qualifying meet in Milwaukee back in the fall.
Sprawled out on the floor of the Petit Center, he talked about his love of old-style hip-hop music ? “Public Enemy is amazing” ? and how becoming a father had changed him. His son, Ayize, turned 2 in December.
“Parenthood is a new chapter in my life,” Davis said. “It’s difficult right now because I’m never there, as much as I would like to be. But I’m looking forward to the day when I’ll be around more, seeing my son grow up. I’m excited about it.”
When one sees that side of Davis, it’s hard to understand his usually testy dealings with the American media and reluctance to seek out U.S. sponsors, an icy relationship that apparently stems from controversies at the last two Olympics. Even in promotional spots being shown incessantly by Olympic broadcaster NBC, there are none of those gushy interviews with Davis, only footage from his triumph in Italy.
Going back to 2002, Davis became the first black athlete to make the U.S. speedskating team in short track, but another competitor accused Ohno of throwing a race during the trials to ensure that his friend Davis got a spot. Although the accusations were dismissed, Davis was bitter about the whole episode, especially when he didn’t get a chance to compete in Salt Lake City, where he was an alternate.
Four years later, after failing in his bid to make both the long and short track teams, Davis won a gold and a silver on the big oval at Turin. Again, what should have been his big moment was clouded by antagonism over his decision not to compete in team pursuit.
Fellow American Chad Hedrick, who had hoped to make a run at Heiden’s record five gold medals, was angry because he felt Davis’ absence cost the Americans ? and Hedrick ? a chance to win the new event. In reality, Davis had never committed to skate pursuit, and most other U.S. skaters said he had every right to sit out a team race in what had always been an individual sport.
“I would like to have one out of three Olympics be a good experience,” Davis said a few months ago, his voice tinged with both sadness and lingering anger.
He certainly has the potential to be one of the biggest stars in Vancouver.
Davis is world-record holder and heavily favored to win gold in the 1,000 and 1,500 meters. He’ll also skate two other events, the 500 and 5,000, though he recently decided against competing in the 10,000. If he had, Davis would have been the first U.S. skater since Heiden to attempt all five individual events at a single Olympics.
Of course, mapping out a schedule came with some unexpected twists along the way.
At a World Cup meet in early December, Davis sounded as though he was committed to skating the team pursuit at these games. A few weeks later, he declined to enter his name before the deadline, severely damaging the U.S. hopes of winning a medal. No explanation was given.
Then came another change of heart. Davis moved up to take a spot in the 10,000 that Hedrick had surrendered, giving him a chance to replicate Heiden’s amazing 1980 schedule. But when the mid-January deadline arrived for the U.S. to submit its final team, Davis sent word that he didn’t want to skate the most grueling event. At that point, it was too late for him to go back and join the team pursuit if he had so desired.
Off the ice, Davis declines most interview requests on this side of the Atlantic, though he did make waves when he called Stephen Colbert “a jerk” not long after the popular comedian had stepped in to sponsor the U.S. speedskating program, which had lost its main patron to bankruptcy.
Davis never elaborated on his remarks, then he pulled another surprise: When the host of “The Colbert Report” challenged him to a faux race for the last spot on the U.S. team ? Colbert can barely stand up on skates, much less go fast on them ? Davis went along with the gag.
The result was a hilarious skit in which Davis took his time getting to the ice ? he stopped to sign autographs and get a sip of water ? while Colbert stumbled around the Salt Lake City oval, failing to take advantage of his huge head start. Davis finally took off, blazing past the comedian to cover 500 meters in just over 35 seconds. The runner-up’s time was more than 13 minutes behind.
“It was like watching a cheetah on shakes,” Colbert marveled.
That side of Davis’ personality is no surprise to the Dutch. They’ve seen it for years.
At the World Cup meet in Heerenveen last November, Davis knew one of his most ardent supporters was celebrating a birthday. So, after winning a race, he walked over to give the fan a most unexpected present.
“He took off his medal and said, ‘That’s for you.'” Wicher Soek recalled recently in a telephone interview. “It totally swept me off my feet.”
Soek has been following Davis for years and has always loved his struggle against the odds ? an African-American from the south side of Chicago growing up to become a world-class speedskater ? as much as his sublime skating style.
“He is total elegance,” Soek said. “Just look the way he holds his hand on his back. No other skater does it like him.”
In Europe, they see a winning personality who just doesn’t know how to score points in the United States.
“It is the simplicity of the man,” Soek said. “He looks you up after the race, always for a chat.”
Bakker still remembers a night after a big race when Kleintje Pils was playing at a hotel close to the oval. Suddenly, he saw Davis in the crowd.
“He hung the big sousaphone around his neck, and he was all laughs,” Bakker said. “And the next day, he wins a race.”
For the Dutch, it’s a total mystery why Davis is not a hot marketing property in the U.S. The small Dutch advertising agency BKB was pleasantly surprised to find out in December that parts of Davis’ suit were still available for sponsorship.
His Dutch manager, Wietze Jongsma, knows that conventional wisdom means little to Davis. In the run-up to Vancouver, he was approached to appear on Oprah Winfrey’s blockbuster show and a children’s program in the Netherlands.
Guess which one he picked?
Yep, the children got the nod over Oprah’s couch.
“I had so many interview request, and we said no to almost all,” Jongsma said. “Everybody wants him.”
That said, Davis is hardly a recluse.
“He can really open up,” Jongsma said. “He does this when he feels in a secure environment. If he is reticent toward the U.S. press, there is cause. It is something like, ‘You write what you want, I am done with this.'”
Other U.S. speedskaters and coaches say they admire Davis’ approach.
“He’s just worried about skating his races,” said Derek Parra, who won gold at the 2002 Olympics and is now all-around coach for the U.S. team. “He doesn’t get into all that other stuff. He’s been burned by the media before, and he’s a little gun-shy. He just wants to do the races. He’s an amazing talent. He’s got a great chance to win medals. We’ll try to support him in every way we can. We know he’s just there to skate.”
Ohno, a good friend and training partner of Davis, has taken the opposite tack. After Turin, he won “Dancing With The Stars.” He posts constantly on Facebook. He’s starting up a nutritional supplement company and may look into a possible acting career after he’s done with skating.
He’s talked with Davis about taking a more conciliatory approach in the U.S.
“We’ve discussed it thousands of times,” Ohno said. “Shani says, ‘I’m not going to change for anybody.’ He feels like he’s been burned badly in the past. I’ve said, ‘Let people see the real you.'”
Maybe we will in Vancouver.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.