Who is Shani Davis?
Shani Davis was named to his first Olympic team in 2002, but didn't actually compete in his first Olympic race until four years later. Find out how Davis went from the roller rinks of Chicago to the top of the Olympic podium.
Speed skating beginnings
Davis was raised on the South side of Chicago by his mother, Cherie, who played an instrumental role in his career. She started taking him to local roller rinks when he was two years old, and encouraged him to learn how to dance on skates—but he was more interested in racing as fast as he could. A few years later, Cherie was working as a legal assistant for an attorney involved in speed skating, who suggested she switch her six-year-old son from the rink to the ice.
He joined the Evanston Speedskating Club, and showed so much promise that he and his mother eventually moved out of inner city Chicago to be closer to the club's rink. As Davis grew into his teens, he moved two more times in search of the best development programs: first to Lake Placid when he was 16, and then to Marquette, Mich. a year later.
In 1999, the sixteen year old made the U.S. national team for the first time and qualified to the world junior championships for both short track and long track speed skating. While most skaters concentrate on either short or long track, Davis preferred to train both disciplines and said skating on short track ovals has improved his cornering skills in speed skating.
In 2002, Davis made his first Olympic team—for short track. He was selected as a relay alternate, and attended the Opening Ceremony for the Salt Lake City Winter Games. But realizing that as the alternate, he wouldn’t have the opportunity to actually compete, he left the Games in order to compete at the world junior championships.
Four years later, Davis made his official Olympic debut as a member of the U.S. speed skating team. He attempted to qualify for the short track team as well, but finished one spot short of what he needed at the U.S. Olympic Trials.
Davis won two medals at the 2006 Torino Olympics: gold in the 1000m and silver in the 1500m. His history-making skates earned him a congratulatory call from future president Barack Obama, then a senator from Illinois.
He repeated that performance at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, successfully defending his 1000m Olympic title and earning another 1500m silver.
He hoped to three-peat in 2014 by claiming a third consecutive gold medal in the 1000m. But Davis, as well as the whole U.S. speed skating team, struggled at the Sochi Olympics and failed to win a single medal. Davis’s best finish was eighth in the 1000m.
Davis will be 35 years old in PyeongChang, which will likely be his last Olympics before retirement. He stated on his website that his plan in preparing for 2018 is to “focus as if I will never skate another race again.”
After experiencing Sochi’s disappointment, Davis proved he was back in top form at the 2015 World Single Distance Championships. He earned a gold medal in the 1000m, bringing his career total world titles up to eight. He also finished just off the podium, in fourth, in the 1500m.
Davis, who earned 15 world medals from 2004 to 2015, didn’t pick up any additional hardware at the 2016 or 2017 World Single Distance Championships. At both competitions, he finished fifth in his signature distance, the 1000m.
Davis is a Winter Olympics groundbreaker: he’s the first African-American athlete and first black athlete from any country to win an individual gold medal at the Winter Olympics.
He also currently holds two world records, in the 1000m and 1500m. Both of the records were set at the Utah Olympic Oval in Salt Lake City in 2009.
Davis has garnered fans from around the world, but especially in the speed skating-crazed country of the Netherlands due to his graceful and elegant style of skating. Before the Sochi Olympics, the Wall Street Journal called Davis “a rock star in Holland” who appears on Dutch TV, is sponsored by Dutch companies and is featured on the covers of Dutch skating magazines.
The Dutch national long-track coach Gerard Kemkers told the Wall Street Journal that Davis appears to skating purists like the Dutch because of his "his skating qualities, his incredible technique, his beautiful corners."
"I did not want to be a champion growing up, just a fast skater." – Shani Davis
"He's the best skater, in my opinion, to ever put long-track speedskates on." – Apolo Ohno
Off the ice
A life-size statue of Davis is featured in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History alongside other sports icons like Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali.
Davis is rumored to have inspired the character of Frozone, an African-American superhero who can create and control ice, from the Disney Pixar movie The Incredibles.
His charity work includes serving as the Honorary Chairman of Inner City Excellence (I.C.E.), a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C. that “unites urban youth from all backgrounds in the common pursuit of excellence in body, mind, and spirit.”
Davis has a nine-year-old son named Ayize, which is a Zulu word for "let it come."