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Free-spirit Davis eyes more glory

Shani Davis (R) of the U.S. reacts after the men's 1,000m event at the ISU World Sprint Speed Skating Championships in Nagano, central Japan
Shani Davis (R) of the U.S. reacts after the men's 1,000m event at the ISU World Sprint Speed Skating Championships in Nagano, central Japan

By Patrick Johnston

(Reuters) - Shani Davis' mother wanted her young son to pursue roller dance, while guards at the Chicago ice rink he frequented just wished he would slow down. A myriad of medals in a glorious decade of elite speed skating prove emphatically the American was right to do neither.

The 31-year-old Davis, the first black athlete to win an individual Winter Olympic gold, heads to Sochi in February with more records in his sights as if to hammer home the point.

Olympic 1,000 meters champion in Turin and Vancouver, Davis could become the first American to win the same event at three consecutive Games.

He is also entered in the 1,500m and two medals in Russia will make him America's most decorated male long-track speed skater.

"I first went roller skating at one of the many Chicago rinks. Mum thought I'd like roller dance but I just wanted to go fast, even then," Davis told Reuters in an interview.

"My speed got me in trouble sometimes with the rink guards, and someone who my mum worked for suggested I might like speed skating."

Thankfully mum listened, the guards relented and he now boasts 10 world championship titles, has set nine world records and proven a strong role model for black youths in south Chicago, where he grew up, and the rest of the world.

"I do appreciate how much my success - especially that first gold medal - means to a great many people around the world more because of my skin color," he said.

"If people view me as a pioneer that way I'll accept the praise but the real pioneers in my skating life were those that blazed trails in my own sport in Chicago.

"People like my first coach Saunders Hicks and my early role model, Wale Kadiri, who's family is Nigerian. I remain focused on making speed-skating history, human history, not Black history. When I'm asked my "race", I always reply: 1000 meters."

AMAZING OPPORTUNITY

His success, though, has not been all plain skating.

He qualified for the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City only to be hit with accusations that his victory in the U.S. trials was aided by race-fixing.

Unfounded, he went to the Games only to withdraw when he was not selected for the team pursuit and instead competed at the world junior championships, which he inevitably won.

Four years later in Turin his victory in the 1,000m and a silver at the 1500m were soiled by an ugly, public spat with team mate Chad Hedrick, who had criticized Davis for not competing in the team pursuit.

Davis had made his decision early that he wanted to concentrate on his individual events and allow an athlete who had only qualified for the pursuit to have the chance to participate in the Games - an opportunity taken away from him in similar circumstances four years earlier.

After the incident, Davis drifted apart from U.S. speed skating, choosing to devise his own training regime, as well as handle his marketing and publicity.

"It's always a challenge to market and fund yourself as a speedskater in the U.S., which is why most of my personal sponsors over the years have been Dutch," he said.

"Between earnings from my results and my Dutch sponsors I've been able to make it from Vancouver to Sochi with little stress.

"Now that it's an Olympic year, endorsement and sponsorship money in the U.S. has been coming my way like never before. Hopefully that trend continues."

HEALTHY AND CONFIDENT

The Vancouver Games proved a huge success for Davis on and off the ice. He became the first man to win two Olympic 1,000 meters with victory in Canada and then buried the feud with Hendrick as they embraced on the podium after receiving their gold and bronze medals.

The stand-off with the U.S. federation also cooled slightly as Davis acknowledged the support of U.S. short-track coaches Jimmy Jang and Jae-su Chun. However, U.S. speed-skating still does not carry his biography and Davis knows who his tutor is.

"I'm still largely self-coached, although Jimmy and Jae-Su are some of the coaches that I've had the benefit of working with, especially as part of my short-track training, which I do every summer," Davis said.

"There are so many other coaches I've been fortunate to work with in my career, in the U.S. and in Europe, and every one of them has contributed something to my success. But I remain my own head coach."

U.S. long track head coach Ryan Shimabukuro saw no reason why Davis could not make it three in a row in Sochi.

"He's getting to an older age but we have seen a lot of people be successful into their early to mid 30s," Shimabukuro told the Team USA website recently.

"He is still in very good condition, he is healthy so I think going into the Olympic season we should expect no different than the Shani of the past."

Tall at 1.88 meters and strong, Davis remains powerfully quick when in stride and navigating corners. None of those attributes appear to have weakened with age and he has not ruled out competing at the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang.

He has won three of the four 1000m World Cup races this season to leave him in second place on the all time win list, 10 shy of the 67 won by Canada's record holder Jeremy Wotherspoon.

He also proved victorious at the U.S. Trials in Salt Lake City last month winning both the 1,000m and 1,500m titles and also qualifying for the 500m.

His one 1000m loss this season came in Berlin last month where he was beaten by South Korea's 500 meter Olympic champion Mo Tae-bum, who finished second in the 1000m to Davis in Vancouver.

Mo is likely to be Davis' main challenger in Russia along with another 24-year-old, Kjeld Nuis of Netherlands, but Davis is not worried.

"I feel good about my chances. I've accomplished my main goal of getting to Sochi 2014 healthy and confident," he said.

"I've been successful this year on the World Cup circuit and at U.S. Olympic Trials, but the Olympics are an event unto itself. My prospects for gold are as good or better than any other speedskater."

(Reporting by Patrick Johnston, editing by Pritha Sarkar)

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