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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 sweat pants, 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.