It seems that every time speedskater Shani Davis shows up to an Olympics, he has a chance to make history. Eight years ago in Torino, he was the first African-American to win winter gold in an individual event. Four years later in Vancouver, he was the first to win back-to-back golds in the 1,000 meters. Now, heading into Sochi for what likely will be the 31-year-old's final Olympic Games, Davis has a chance to become the first man to win three straight Olympic golds in any winter event.
Along the way, it's been quite the journey, from his public feud with USA Speedskating to those who question why he's never participated in an Olympic team pursuit race; from making the team in 2002 as a relay alternate (but never competing) to becoming one of the most recognized stars the United States will send to Sochi.
Growing up on Chicago's South Side, Davis has always done things his own way. These Olympics are no different. Only this time, Davis appears a bit kindler, gentler and a touch more understanding and forgiving. At least until the competition begins.
Davis chatted recently with ESPN.com about everything from dealing with pressure in Sochi to his favorite comfort foods.
Question from Wayne Drehs: Even before Lindsey Vonn's injury, you were seen as one of the faces of this American team. Now that's probably amplified even more. How do you feel in that role?
Answer from Shani Davis: You know, I've been skating for 25 years of my life, and I've been part of the Olympic movement since 2002. I've seen the faces come and go. Every four years, somebody steps up and fulfills that role of being the star of the Olympics. Lindsey's injury is really sad. She's so prominent and was a contender for gold medals again. It's really a shame. But for me, my first and foremost job is to perform, and if that comes with me being one of the guys that is the face of the Olympics, I gratefully accept it. I'm cool with it, but if the attention wasn't there, I'd be just as cool with that, as well. It's my duty to skate well and win medals.
Q: Sochi will be your third Olympics. What is different for you this time around?
A: I've learned a great amount -- how to prepare to be the best I can be, getting to the Olympics and being my best there, rather than being awesome in the beginning of the season and not being at my best at the Olympics. It's just trial and error, gaining experience. You learn how to do everything you have to do to execute on those given days.
Q: Is there one thing in particular you've learned that you need to do differently?
A: I would say recovery and taking better care of my body through treatment, and conditioning my body better in terms of focusing on those smaller muscles that we forget about -- such as those injuries [groin] I went through last year. It's just more educating and preparing and fueling my body properly.
Q: Since you mentioned food, I have to ask: What is your comfort food?
A: Man, I'm a Chicagoan. Chicago pizza. The best pizza is from Chicago; it's the best in the world. After that, Korean barbecue. And you know, after those long flights home when you're subjected to airplane food for like 15 hours, I have this love of finding a McDonald's, getting some fries and nuggets. Maybe a caramel ice cream sundae.
Q: You mentioned pizza. I'm a Chicago guy. What's your pizza? Lou Malnati's?
A: No, man, Giordano's. I've actually never been to Lou Malnati's. I talked to [former Chicago] Mayor [Richard] Daley once way back when, and he said the same thing. He said Lou Malnati's is the best, but I've never gotten around to trying it. I'm happy at Giordano's. I just love it so much.
Q: What do you see as the logistical challenges of competing in Sochi?
A: There aren't any really. I was always taught that practice is harder than any competition I will ever skate. [Competition is] maybe two minutes, a little less than that. And I train for four to six hours a day. I should be able to squeak out a really strong effort with the amount of training I've put in. Because of that, I try not to let myself get psyched out or worry about anything else going on around me. I just focus on what I'm there to do.
Q: Do you not worry about security or terrorism at all, then?
A: Well, I mean, that's in the back of your mind, but as an athlete, there's nothing I can do about that. When we come together in Sochi, you would like to think that we are safe and we don't have to worry about that outside world. Our job is to focus on competing. I just really hope that nothing happens, but I can't worry about that stuff.
Q: Over the years, you've had somewhat of an adversarial relationship with the media. What would you say is the worst or most frustrating question you've ever been asked?
A: That's a tough question. I guess there are a lot of them I could say, to be honest. Not one in particular that jumps out right away. But really, I just try to move forward and not look back at the things that cause the turbulences in the past. I don't look at where I was there to where I am now. I try to move forward and let bygones be bygones and just be a better person than I was before.
Q: With that, how would you categorize what your relationship is like now with USA Speedskating?
A: I feel like it's been moving in the right direction. I'm not hung up on some of the things I was hung up on a few years ago with my organization. It's just … I feel like they do the best they can to get whatever they need out of the athletes, and I as an athlete try to get as much as I can from them. Sometimes, there was conflict, but I'm beyond that now. I'm not going to let myself into situations where I'm fighting or arguing with them. It's not worth it. I'd rather save that energy for skating.
Q: So with the team pursuit, what are your thoughts on being part of that group in Sochi?
A: Well, I've been training for it, so we'll see what happens when we get there. It's an event where it's possible we can do very well in.
Q: In the days leading up to your last Olympics in Vancouver, you were especially uneasy. Why?
A: I started to think about everything that could have gone wrong instead of what was going to go right. I was in fear because, in 2006, when I won the 1,000 meters, I didn't have any pressure on me. I was just going out, doing my thing and establishing myself. In 2010, I was defending that title. It was scary for me. "What if I don't have a good start?" "What if I misstep?" "What if I have a false start?" I was thinking about all that could have gone wrong instead of the things I had been doing so well in World Cups and at world championships. It took me right up until my race to clear my head, get rid of all that negativity and get those good vibes going where I was just skating.
Q: How do you prevent that from happening in Sochi?
A: It was just something I had to go through. Once I went through it and got over it, it was like riding a bike -- I knew I could do it. I'm in a much better position now than I was then. I'm not nearly as worried about it. I've dealt with it already. Now I'm sure as we get closer and lead up to those races, I'll have some of those same fears, but I have the experience where I can own those fears and make sure they don't come out when I don't want them to.
Q: In Sochi, you have the potential to be the first skater to three-peat in 1,000 meters, and I know you're still chasing that elusive gold in the 1,500, the Race of Kings. Which of those accomplishments would mean more to you?
A: I just take the most simple approach as possible. Getting myself all psyched out for all the bells and whistles and accolades doesn't help. It's just a title at the end of the day. If I stick to the principles that got me into this sport to begin with -- and that's my love of skating fast -- if I do that to the best of my abilities against everyone else there, I'll be satisfied. In the past, that's been good enough to do some great things. I'm just trying to see if it's in my body to do it again.
Q: When you're standing there getting ready to start a race, what do you think about?
A: I don't think about anything. I just try to make sure I have confidence in everything I did leading up to the race. I want to think about all the training I did to get to that point, and I want to believe I can meet whatever demand is on me at that moment. The rest is autopilot. I don't want to overanalyze and go out of my norm -- just do what I practiced, keep it calm, cool and collected.
Q: What about when it's over? What runs through your head?
A: Cross that line, look up at that scoreboard, and I like seeing that No. 1 up there. But I've had times with a 2, 3, 10, whatever, you name it. I just look up at the times and hope I'm comfortable with what I see. Hopefully it's the strongest time of the day.
Q: How have your views on the Olympics evolved over the course of your career?
A: Well, my world has changed significantly since 2002, when I was an alternate that wasn't chosen to now being one of the faces of the Olympics. It's my job. It's once every four years to display your dominance and show your excellence in your craft. But there's a lot more to it in that there are a lot more people who are united in terms of watching the Winter Olympics and really following our paths and reading our blogs and following our journals.
There's a lot more at stake. I feel I'm a leader in the sense of uniting people to cheer "Go USA!" -- I'm part of that campaign. I guess I've learned that it's much larger than me just out there skating. I used to be on the outside looking in, and now I'm the insider looking out at all these people who cheer for us and care so much. I'm just honored to have such a stake in it. It's come full circle.
Q: What about speedskating? How has it evolved since you began?
A: It's always kind of the same, actually. The difference is there are a lot of younger guys that are stronger. We're pushing each other and rising to the occasion of doing something great. It keeps you sharp and focused. No time to slip. You don't bring your A-game, and there is somebody else on the team who will. That tremendous level has raised our competitiveness.
Q: What do you do to get away from skating?
A: I become a normal person. I go out with my friends, we hang out, watch sports, eat good food. A lot of leisure. Go shopping. I just live a relaxed, normal life. I don't have to worry about getting in shape or waking up early. I just simply enjoy life's perks, as a citizen of Chicago and America. I look forward to it once these Olympics are done. Can't wait for that, actually.
Q: Sportswise, who are some of your favorite athletes and teams you like to watch?
A: Oh man, I follow the Bulls a bit. The Blackhawks -- they're killing it. The Bears. I was really sad about that loss to Green Bay. But such is sports. I've learned that firsthand. Sometimes your best isn't good enough. I follow short-track speedskating; that's how I started, and I still do a lot of that for cross-training. I love watching those guys go around the small rink. I just love sports.
When I'm home, I'm following ESPN any chance I get. "SportsCenter," who has been traded, who's injured, I'm into all that stuff. Oh -- and don't forget my White Sox. They let me throw out the first pitch after the Olympics in 2006 at the game where all the White Sox players were waiting to get their World Series rings.
Q: What was that like?
A: Man, that was one of the most terrifying moments in my life. That mound is so high. Home plate is so far. You certainly earn respect for what those guys are able to do out there. But what an unreal experience. Everyone is waiting for their rings, the stadium is packed and I'm just like, "Please don't let me screw this up."
A: Well, it was coming down, but the catcher helped me out and reached for it before it hit home plate. They ruled it a strike.
Q: If you didn't become a speedskater, what do you think you would have been?
A: I think Shani would have been a simple guy brought up on the South Side of Chicago. I'd be tight to my community of Hyde Park. I'd hang with my friends, have a 9-to-5 job, finish up school and made enough money that my family wouldn't have to worry about supporting me and I could take care of myself. I'd be a lot like my friends are now. They work, save up their money so they can afford the things they want and do the things they want to do and just enjoy Chicago. I'd be just a regular guy.