Feb. 18, 2006: Shani Davis becomes first Black athlete to win an individual Olympic gold medal during the Winter Games

Chicago Tribune
Chicago Tribune
Shani Davis, USA, works a turn enroute to his gold medal time in the 1000 meter men's long track speed skating at the Oval Lingotto during the 2006 Winter Olympic Games in Turin Italy on Feb, 18, 2006. Chicago Tribune/TNS

When Chicago-born Shani Davis competed in his fourth and final Olympics in Pyeonchang, South Korea, in 2018, the Tribune wrote : “Davis isn’t here to make you or U.S. Speedskating or the U.S. Olympic Committee comfortable. ... He’s a complex man reminding us that athletes don’t have to come in perfectly wrapped packages to root for them.”

Davis became the first Black athlete to win an individual gold medal at the Winter Games in Torino with his 1,000-meter victory in 2006. Four years later, he became the first skater to defend his title in that event. He also won silver medals in the 1,500 both years.

In his final two Olympic games, however, Davis didn’t finish a racer higher than in seventh place.

He retired from competition in late 2019 , and coached China’s speedskating team.

A talented skater who trained in Evanston, Davis was known as an outspoken and unconventional athlete who often trained on his own. He withdrew from the 2002 Olympic team to participate in the world junior championships instead. To the dismay of teammates, Davis dropped out of the team pursuit event in 2006 , to focus on the 1,000 meters — he won that event, the team took sixth place. He took to Twitter to criticize U.S. Olympic officials for not naming him flag bearer in 2018.

Yet, Davis paved a path for younger athletes of color in speedskating.

“Davis will be remembered for ignoring these rules, just like he ignored barriers that have kept black athletes from competing in many winter sports,” the Tribune wrote in 2018 .

This story originally ran in the Chicago Tribune on Feb. 19, 2006 .

He was right. About everything. You had the distinct feeling that if you had asked Shani Davis to tackle the global-warming issue Saturday, he would have found a solution.

He was right about declining to compete in team pursuit for the United States earlier in the week. He was right about standing by his outspoken mother, whose stiletto e-mails to perceived critics are legendary.

What made Davis so right? He won a gold medal Saturday in the 1,000 meters. He held up under the pressure of being the favorite and knowing that some people considered him about as patriotic as a seditionist. He put the pedal to the medal in the last half of the race and had everybody else eating his ice chips.

He did it his way.

The kid from the South Side, the kid who took to the ice as a 6-year-old under the tutelage and scrutiny of his mother, became the first African-American to win an individual gold medal in the Winter Olympics.

That is the story, and it isn’t the story. Surely part of the defiance that Davis and his mother Cherie bring to speedskating has to do with the fact that he was one of the few black faces in a snow-white sport.

But most of what occurred Saturday came about because of Davis’ iron will and his refusal to fall obediently into line. And that beautifully smooth skating motion of his helped too.

He had been heavily criticized for not competing in the team pursuit Wednesday. American teammate Chad Hedrick, who finished sixth in the 1,000, was still angry Davis chose to get ready for his individual race rather than compete in the pursuit. The U.S. team failed to medal in the event.

“I was a part of Team USA,” Hedrick said Saturday. “That’s what I qualified for. I’m going to do whatever it takes to make my team as strong as it can be.

“I didn’t care about how it was going to affect my individual race. I don’t care about that. I care about being part of the team. And all the people who work hard with me on the team, I owe it to them.”

Wrapping yourself in the flag might be a fashion statement, but it doesn’t say a whole lot for Hedrick. He’s right: Davis isn’t a team player. That’s because speedskating isn’t a team sport. It’s an individual sport.

Team pursuit is new to the Olympics.

“It’s hard to argue with his decision not to do it,” American teammate Casey FitzRandolph said of Davis. “I’m not the first one to often compliment Shani, but I think he made the right decision.”

It certainly looks as if part of Hedrick’s anger stems from his failed pursuit of five gold medals in these Olympics. He won the 5,000 and has two events left.

What if the skate were on the other foot?

“Would Chad have skated the team pursuit if the team pursuit was before the 5,000?” Davis said. “You have to ask yourself that.”

Asked if the American skaters were happy for Davis, Hedrick said: “I don’t know. I haven’t been out there. I’m happy for Joey.” That’s Joey Cheek, who won silver.

“Shani skated fast,” Hedrick said. “That’s about all I have to say about that.”

“At least he said I skated fast,” Davis said, smiling.

Ah, nothing like fun at the old ice rink. Nothing has come easily for Davis, despite all his ability. For years he and his mother have been battling the U.S. Speedskating Federation because of funding, logo usage and perceived racism.

He won gold Saturday—because of his mother, in spite of his mother. It really doesn’t matter why now. They were right. Both of them. Mother and son.

Does that mean Davis couldn’t have won without her? No. It means he won with Cherie Davis, who was unavailable for comment after the race.

“There’s more than one way to get the wheels rolling,” Davis said. “Sometimes it’s hard love. Sometimes it’s pampering. And my mom, she does a little bit of both. That’s just the way she is.

“And I respect her for being that way because honestly I think that if she wasn’t the way she was, I wouldn’t be able to handle some of the things that go with the sport. You’ve got to be tough. People are skating really well and you’ve got to go out there and know you’re a tough dude.

“Someone pushed me when I was 6 years old. Somebody still pushes me when I’m 23 years old. She did what she had to do, and I think that it worked.”

Earlier in the week, Davis had said it was him against the world. But let’s face it, the world wasn’t paying much attention to him until Saturday. That should change now. He predicted that after seeing his performance, more kids would start skating at the club in Evanston where he trained as a youth.

What they saw Saturday was a man in his element. The 1,000 is his race. He’s the world record-holder.

He was the picture of serenity at the starting line, as if he knew what was about to happen. He was paired with Jeremy Wotherspoon of Canada. But he was really racing against Hedrick, who was the leader in the clubhouse with a time of 1 minute 9.45 seconds.

Davis is known for his strong finish, and he was all power around the final curve and down the stretch. As he crossed the finish line, he looked up at the clock and held his arms over his head. What he thought he knew before the race he knew for sure at that moment.

He was the Olympic champion.

Immediately after winning the race Saturday, Davis put on a White Sox cap. See, the kid knows how to pick ‘em.

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