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By The Skanner News
Published: 22 February 2006

TURIN, Italy— Go ahead, say what you want about Shani Davis. Call him a racial pioneer. Accuse him of selfishness.
Just don't forget this: He's an Olympic champion.

Davis became the first Black athlete from any nation to claim an individual gold medal in Winter Olympic history Saturday, winning the 1,000-meter speedskating race and justifying his decision to focus on himself first, his team second.

Joey Cheek made it a 1-2 American finish, adding a silver to his victory in the 500. Davis added a silver medal of his own Tuesday in the 1,500 meters.

"I'm one of a kind," Davis said, fully aware of how much he stands out in the mostly White sport. "I'm a different type of person. I have a different charisma. A lot of people don't understand me."

That much was clear from the racially charged messages to his personal Web site, "people saying they hoped I would fall, break my leg." Even Eric Heiden, the sport's biggest icon and now a doctor who works with the U.S. national team, had some choice words for America's newest gold medalist over his decision to skip the team pursuit.

"He is going his own way," said Heiden, who won five golds at the 1980 Lake Placid Games. "He's very different to a lot of speedskaters, and we have to respect that, but he is not a team player."

Maybe not, but the 23-year-old from Chicago's South Side is building a heck of a rivalry with Texan Chad Hedrick.
Hedrick won the first speedskating gold with a dominating performance in the 5,000. Davis got him back in the 1,000,theweakestof Hedrick's individual events. They'll face off again Tuesday in the 1,500 — an event Davis ruled until Hedrick snatched away the world record.

"I'm not trying to beat Chad," Davis insisted. "I'm trying to beat everyone."

Hedrick, who had only skated the 1,000 a half-dozen times in his career, put up an early time that stood until Davis bested it in the 19th of 21 pairs with a clocking of 1 minute, 8.89 seconds. Four other skaters passed Hedrick as well, leaving him in sixth place.

Erben Wennemars of the Netherlands claimed the bronze, which was fine with Hedrick.

"Once Shani beat me, I didn't care if I got a bronze," he said. "I'm here to win. It's all or nothing."

Thetestyrelationship between the two U.S. stars was apparent after the race. Hedrick didn't even bother congratulating Davis.

"Shani skated fast today," Hedrick said. "That's about all I have to say about that."

Davis came under scrutiny for skipping the team pursuit — especially when a Hedrick-led squad was knocked out by Italy in the quarterfinals, doomed by a slow skater who might not have been on the ice if Davis was available. The loss denied Hedrick a chance to go after Heiden's record of five golds at Lake Placid.

But Davis, world record holder in the 1,000, wanted to focus on his signature event. And his victory — a third consecutive individual triumph for the U.S. men at the Olympic oval — means that Hedrick's quest would have come up short, even with a gold in the team pursuit.

After Davis became the first guy to break 1:09 on the slow Turin ice, there were still two more pairs to go.

Cheek went in the next group and came the closest, fading a bit at the end for a time of 1:09.16. Five days earlier, he dominated the shortest race on the schedule and donated his $25,000 win bonus from the U.S. Olympic Committee to a charity run by speedskating icon Johann Olav Koss.

This time, he'll hand over a $15,000 check to Koss. Dutch stars Wennemars and Jan Bos went in the final pair, but neither caught the Americans.

"I'm just very happy about my race," Davis said. "More than anything, the things I trained for, I was right about."

Davis showed no immediate emotion after the last two skaters failed to beat his time.

As he came to the other end of the rink, Davis found Wennemars waiting.The friendly rivals gave each other a big hug in front of the orange-clad, predominantly Dutch crowd, prompting the biggest cheer of the night.

"I like him as a person, I like him as a speedskater," Wennemars said. "What the United States thinks about him doesn't matter because Shani is the Olympic champion."

Davis donned a Chicago White Sox cap — a tribute to the hometown where he grew up wanting to skate, shrugging off friends who wondered why a Black kid from the city of Michael Jordan would want to don a tight-fitting suit and compete in a fringe sport.

"Maybe I can be the Michael Jordan of speedskating," he said.

He's not even sure that being the first Black to win an individual Winter gold is that big a deal because of speedskating's obscurity outside of the Olympics.

"It's a breakthrough," Davis said, "but it's what people make of it."

Vonetta Flowers became the first Black to capture Winter gold at the Salt Lake City Games four years ago. She was a pusher on the two-woman bobsled team, someone who helps get the machine going and hops along for the ride.

Davis won this gold entirely on his own.

"If you put your mind to it and you believe it, you can achieve it," he said. "You cannot give up — even if the road is a tough road."

— The Associated Press

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