Speedskater Shani Davis is a two-time Olympic gold medalist, the world record holder in the 1,000 meters, and one of the most decorated middle distance racers in his sport.
He grew up on the south side of Chicago, and is the first black athlete ever to win an individual gold medal at a Winter Olympics, and yet, the place he is most revered is not in his home country, but in the Netherlands, a speedskating-crazed nation where Davis has been featured on billboards, magazine covers and television commercials.
Those savvy Dutch fans — some of whom were at the Adler Arena Wednesday (dressed in orange) for the men’s Olympic 1,000-meter race — realize that while the Olympics are a big deal, they are but one line on an elite speedskater’s resume.
Davis is well aware American fans judge him by a different standard. They peek in on his sport once every four years during the Olympics, and measure him by his medal count, so, like high-profile snowboarder Shaun White and skier Bode Miller, the pressure was on Wednesday as he attempted to become to first male skater to win the same event at three Olympics in a row.
Like White and Miller, he fell short, finishing eighth and way off his world-record mark of 1:06.42. He finished 0.7 seconds behind winner Stefan Groothuis of — where else? —the Netherlands. Denny Morrison of Canada won silver and Michel Mulder of the Netherlands took bronze.
The Dutch have won eight of the nine men’s speedskating medals awarded thus far.
Davis had posted the fastest time of the year in the event (1:06.88), and won three of the four World Cup races this season. But on Wednesday, he crossed the finish line in 1:09.12. He will likely be lumped with White and Miller as a disappointment and a bust by some fans and media back home.
“It’s too bad,’’ Davis said. “The world audience that sees skating every day, they understand it; they appreciate it, and they were cheering for me (Wednesday), not out of sympathy, but because they know sometimes the best skater doesn’t deliver every single day. I think those fans understand that. I’m not sure about the Americans, but maybe someday they will.’’
He said he was not shocked by his finish, that he’s “in touch with reality,’’ but “very, very sad’’ and eager to correct his mistakes before Saturday’s 1,500.
“You win some; you lose some,’’ he said. “People train all their lives to win, and Groothuis was able to do it today. I’m very happy for him; disappointed for me. . . . Unfortunately, I had a bad day on a world stage, with NBC and America watching, but I’m a good sport. Life goes on. I’ll get over it.’’
He sounded like he stopped at a sports psychologist’s office on his way to the post-race interview area. Not known as a guy who likes to stop and chat with reporters, Davis seemed in no hurry to duck away from questions. He was philosophical, introspective, gracious, and patient.
Wednesday may not have been his best Olympic performance on the oval, but it was one of his best in the interview area.
Some reporters suggested the U.S. team made a mistake training at high altitude in a dry place like Utah for these Olympics, which are being held at sea level in a humid climate. The Dutch trained at sea level. Davis didn’t seem to think that was the problem. He said he felt good at the start, felt he’d go fast, and once he saw his split time was behind the leaders, he had a feeling things wouldn’t turn out as he planned.
“We just weren’t fast enough, and other people were,’’ he explained, matter-of-factly. “I did the best I could possibly do, and it wasn’t good enough. As a human being, I have to accept that, learn from it, and get stronger for the next opportunity.’’
If he wins a medal in the 1,500, it would be his fifth Olympic medal, which would tie Eric Heiden and Chad Hedrick for the most by an American male speedskater.
“There’s a lot riding on the 1,500, but I try not to let those things (records) affect what it is I’m trying to do,’’ he said. “I work very hard, and my legacy and the history I leave behind show that I’m the very best skater. Today, I just wasn’t able to do it.’’
Davis’ U.S. teammate Brian Hansen finished one spot behind him, in ninth place. He, too, was disappointed that the Americans missed another opportunity to make the medal podium.
“We had one of the most successful World Cups we’ve ever had, that was in Salt Lake City this past fall,’’ he said. “I thought, ‘We are on top of the world here; things are looking great.’ Suddenly, you come here, we’ve already missed out on – Tucker (Fredricks), Heather (Richardson), me, Shani, Joey (Mantia) – those are all potential medals right there. And each one was a miss. There hasn’t been any luck with the U.S.
“It’s a mystery to me. I think it’s a mystery to a lot of people.’’