Gangneung, South Korea • He stepped to the line introduced as a two-time Olympic gold medalist, still the world-record holder in the same event that might’ve been his last on this stage. Shani Davis lifted both of his arms, waved his hands to the crowd inside the Gangneung Oval, skated the men’s 1,000 meters in 1:08.78, which left him in third place at the time.
The momentum from reaching over 30 mph kept him going around the Oval, hands on both knees during his cool-down lap. Fans seated adjacent to the media seats screamed his name, and Davis immediately acknowledged them. He kept on going.
Four pairs remained, featuring some of the top long-track speedskaters in the world, where he used to skate and own it. The 35-year-old eventually would be bumped down, spot-by-spot, to seventh place.
When he finally came to a stop, stepping off the ice, that’s where the night truly became interesting. At least for those waiting to talk to Davis.
Roughly a dozen reporters crammed into the stuffy mixed zone on the ground floor of the Oval to wait for potentially a minute or so that never came. Davis went out a different way — quintessential Davis.
He’s a pioneer. In speedskating and the Olympics. Back-to-back gold medals in the men’s 1,000 meters in 2006 and 2010 not only made him a staple of Team USA. More importantly, he was the first black athlete from any country ever to win an individual gold at a Winter Olympic Games. His abilities gave young kids tuning into the Olympics a role model they’d never had until Davis.
That’s the stuff of legends, a groundbreaking name that will live on forever.
Instead, the narrative of what could be his last Olympics will revolve around his decision to skip addressing a horde of reporters. That’s the game, though. And Davis knows it. He’s been vehemently outspoken about his portrayal in the U.S. media landscape. He’s called out several reporters by name on Twitter.
Davis is both in-your-face and his own brand of passive-aggressive.
At 35, seventh in the 1,000 proves how good he still is, how tactically he still skates and how fast he still can press off the ice.
We had no insight from him. We resorted to U.S. Speedskating communications director Matt Whewell, who asked Davis multiple times to come back through the mixed zone. Davis declined. We asked to speak to his coach, U.S. national long-track team coach Tom Cushman, but Whewell said Davis asked Cushman not to speak to reporters.
“It was against his wishes to send the coach,” Whewell said.
Whewell said there are potential repercussions from the IOC for avoiding the mandatory mixed zone, adding that Davis wasn’t the only athlete to make the decision Friday night. Apples to oranges.
This isn’t Davis’ legacy. One race and one skipped interview session is just one night. What it does prove once more is that Davis is true to himself, defiant to the end. We eventually spoke to fellow U.S. long-track national team coach Matt Kooreman, who doesn’t even coach Davis, about what maybe was his Olympic au revoir.
“I think Shani is a speedskating genius, and he’s a legend of our sport,” Kooreman said.
Kooreman on if he knew Davis was satisfied with his seventh-place finish: “Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know, sorry.”
Kooreman on if he thinks this was Davis’ last Olympic race around an Oval: “I don’t know.”
Kooreman on if he believes Davis could keep going and perhaps skate at another Games at 39: “He could if he wants to, yeah, but I don’t know.”
Just a couple months ago in December, Davis was cheery as can be, welcoming and reflective at the long-track World Cup stop at the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns. He said a fifth Olympics appearance would mean the world, that his spirit still is young competing against skaters nearly half his age, that he still is obsessed with the challenge of racing as fast as he can.
“As long as I have that in me,” he said, “age doesn’t mean a thing.”
Davis took to Twitter exactly two weeks ago to criticize the United States Olympic Committee’s decision to choose U.S. luger Erin Hamlin as the flag bearer for the Opening Ceremony. The U.S. winter sports bodies voted, and both Hamlin and Davis were the finalists. A coin toss determined who would lead the U.S. athlete delegation, and it landed in Hamlin’s favor.
The tweet garnered so much attention that Davis eventually made his account private.
Kooreman said Davis hasn’t been a distraction to Team USA.
“I don’t think anyone feels that at all,” he said. “No one feels that at all. These guys love to skate and compete and, like, once we get back out there and we’re here at the rink, we don’t worry about that.”
Shani Davis came to these Olympics as the most-decorated U.S. athlete here with four Olympic medals and will leave with the same designation. He’s a seven-time world champion with 58 career World Cup gold medals. His records will be untouched for a very long time, which speaks directly to his brilliance.
If this is it for Shani Davis, he leaves on his own terms: Out the back door.
If not, we’ll be ready to ask about the next race.