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Davis driven, but wants to savor Games

2/14/2010

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- When the day at the Richmond Oval was complete and the Dutch partisans sang the national anthem after Sven Kramer's record-setting gold-medal victory in the 5,000 meters, Shani Davis laconically explained how finishing 12th in his first event gave him confidence for the days ahead.

"I'm satisfied with the result. It makes me look forward to my races," Davis said. "I figure if I can make it through 12 laps, I can probably most likely make it through two and three laps and maybe a little more than a lap, which is the 500, so I'm excited."

Saturday afternoon was supposed to belong to the Orange-clad Dutch, and it did. They arrived in force, from Rotterdam and Den Bosch, Eindhoven and even little Veldhoven. Some venue staffers estimated that nearly half of the tickets at the Richmond Oval were purchased by Dutch well-wishers.

Neither Davis nor Chad Hedrick (who finished 11th) was expected to medal in the 5,000. Trevor Mariscano, the third American entered in the race, finished 14th. Both Davis and Hedrick train for the shorter, sprinting distances and expectations will grow as their practiced disciplines near over the coming days.

Davis, who will skate in the 500 meters Monday, is the gold-medal favorite for the 1,000; Hedrick was the only person to beat Davis in the 1,500 last year, as both are medal favorites at that distance.

Kramer, who was paired with Davis in the 11th race, saluted Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende and Prince William with a sizzling Olympic-record time of 6 minutes, 14.6 seconds. He already owns the world record in the 5,000 (6:03.32) set on Nov. 17, 2007, in Calgary.

"Having the 5,000 first helps break the ice for the other races to come. I'm looking forward to the challenges," Davis said. "I told myself, 'I'll probably get paired with Sven.' They told me, 'You're paired with the big dog.' I said, 'Sven?' And I said, 'That's OK.' What could I do about it?

"I wrote down in my journal that I thought the winning time would be 6:14, so I'm kind of a genius in that case. I know my sport well. It shows that he has the heart of a champion. He had to go out there first. He had a whole bunch of sharpshooters behind him and did his thing. He didn't leave any question about if there is anybody better than him. So he put all his cards on the table and his hand won. It's awesome."

The Americans would have to wait until later in the day for its medals -- Apolo Anton Ohno (silver) and J.R. Celski (bronze) won the first two medals for the United States in the 1,500 short-track race -- but if a victory existed in the afternoon, it was enjoyed by Davis, who has been an enigmatic figure of the Games.

He is intriguing and gifted, fueled by slights both real and perceived, a person who lives at a distance and deals with its consequences. He is distrustful of the American press, but Davis is not merely another athlete who doesn't like to give interviews. He once sued his own federation, U.S. Speedskating. He did not appear in Chicago at the U.S. Olympic media summit, the meet-and-greet event that familiarizes the nation's press with Olympic hopefuls. He does not even appear in U.S. Speedskating's team press guide.

The result is a man whose mystery can be driven by principle, by a rightful distaste of the way things are (he is perhaps the best in the world at what he does in a country that follows only bank shots, touchdowns and slam dunks before getting around to him about as often as a presidential election) and by an inherent sense of self that can offend the sensibilities of a skating establishment which, like most establishments, does not enjoy being challenged.

And yet for as little as the American public knows about him, Davis is a star in a country that respects speedskating not only every Olympiad, but every day. Before Saturday afternoon's race, Davis did a light jog before donning his skates and was the subject of gasps and points from the young Dutch fans ("Look! There's Shani!"), who surely know him as well as their own famed team.

Kramer hadn't lost a race in two and a half years. There was electricity in the crowd as the two heavyweights -- though in different distances -- raced around the track, both at a record pace early. Then Kramer, steady and durable, glided as Davis faded.

"Sven is a specialist in that race. I gave him a good run for about four or five laps, but there are seven or six laps to go. It was real typical Shani. I just hit the wall," Davis said. "It's better now than later. Get this one out of the way. I was really happy I was paired with him because he's the best skater in the world at that distance. It made me reach really deep into myself to be able to stay with him early."

At some point, d├ętente is good for easing the soul. At 27, Davis decided that time is now. He has put up the necessary walls that allow him to excel, that allow him to walk the iconoclast's line. And for as much resistance as he may have faced as an African-American in an overwhelmingly white sport, Davis also has paid a price for his individualism. Like the Williams sisters in tennis, Davis is not only black in a white sport, but he is also guided by a strong parent (his mother Cherie is his manager), who for all the criticism is being vindicated by her son's successes.

"I think the experience is different to begin with because attitudes with a lot of things have changed, not just with me but with how people deal with me and what people are putting out there in the media," Davis said. "It's a lot more positive than it was before. I feel like things are changing for the better."

And perhaps now, fortified both by his ability and the success he has enjoyed -- he was the first African-American to win an individual medal in the Winter Olympics in 2006 and for an encore has become one of the most feared skaters in his disciplines -- he says he has approached Vancouver with drive and something that can be equally satisfying: the desire to enjoy the experience.

"I just feel that I'm telling myself to enjoy and enjoy," he said. "I had two Olympics beforehand that weren't quite good for me, and this time it's a whole another story. I'm enjoying myself. I'm happy for my competitors. I greeted everyone out there who made the podium and had personal bests, and I'm just really excited to go out there and showcase what I can do. It's an itch. I can't wait."

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston " and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.