Tracee Hamilton - Sports Columnist

Shani Davis wins a silver medal to treasure in the 1,500-meter speedskating race

Enjoy an up close and personal look at the action in Canada.
By Tracee Hamilton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 21, 2010

RICHMOND, B.C. One-half of the U.S. speedskating team won a silver medal here Saturday evening at the Richmond Olympic Oval. The other half retired.

U.S. speedskating had better hang on to Shani Davis like grim death. Davis won his second medal of these Games, a silver in the 1,500 meters, and the third for the United States. The only other U.S. speedskater to medal here is Davis's teammate Chad Hedrick, who finished sixth in his final Olympic competition.

The two shared the medal podium in the 1,000 meters, when Davis won gold and Hedrick bronze. These three medals are likely to be the U.S. team's final haul at these Games.

Mark Tuitert of the Netherlands won the gold medal in 1 minute 45.57 seconds. Davis was .53 behind (1:46.10), and bronze medalist Havard Bokko of Norway was just .03 behind him.

After the race, Davis looked bewildered during his cool-down lap, watching Tuitert celebrate with the numerous and noisy Dutch fans.

"He said, 'This is the king's race. I wanted it so bad,' " Tuitert said of his exchange with Davis afterward.

"I'm a little disappointed, but you have got to be satisfied," Davis said. "I'm just really happy for [Tuitert]. There are a lot of talented young skaters out there. Whatever happens, happens."

Davis had been hoping for a second gold and a phone call from an even more famous Chicagoan (no, not Wilbon). Four years ago in Turin, Davis missed a call from an Illinois politician named Barack Obama after he became the first black athlete to win an individual gold medal in the Winter Olympics. Obama was unable to reach Davis, but the call has a much better chance of going through this time around.

Not that Davis has been seeking opportunities to raise his Q rating. He turned down an appearance with another of Chicago's elite, Oprah Winfrey, before the Games because he didn't want to interrupt training. He did, however, agree to race Stephen Colbert as part of the Comedy Central funnyman's attempt to make an Olympic team. That was notable in part because Davis had rather famously referred to Colbert as a "jerk" after the comedian agreed to raise money for the U.S. team.

Davis, like the rest of the U.S. squad, has since embraced Colbert's involvement, and U.S. Speedskating named him an assistant team psychologist. Colbert distributes bits of sage advice to the skaters such as: "Imagine that I have stuffed your suit with meat, and I have released wild dogs on the ice."

It's hard to fathom the once-powerful U.S. speedskating team needing a talk show host to subsidize it, but after its main sponsor went bankrupt last fall, Colbert stepped forward, asking his "Nation" of loyal viewers to donate money to help defray training expenses. He raised $300,000.

It was particularly surprising that speedskating was the team in need of Colbert's help. Historically, long track speedskating has provided more Winter Olympic medals for America than any other sport. (Historically, Eric Heiden has provided more Winter Olympic medals for America than several other Olympic sports combined.) The United States has won 66 total speedskating medals since the Winter Games began in 1924, fewer than only Norway (80) and the Netherlands (79) -- ironically, the three countries represented on the podium last night.

There have been peaks and valleys in both the men's and women's programs. After Heiden's epic performance of five golds in Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1980, the United States won just two medals in men's events over the next five Games. The program flourished again in 2002 (five medals) and 2006 (seven medals).

Women's events were added to the Games in 1960, and the United States was an early power, winning four medals in 1968, 1972 and 1976, and three in 1980. In eight Olympics since Lake Placid, however, the women have won just 11 medals -- and Bonnie Blair has six of those. The U.S. women won no medals in Turin four years ago and have been blanked thus far at the Richmond Olympic Oval.

The situation is not unusual in the Olympics, as the rest of the world catches up to the early dominant forces. The Norwegians may lead the all-time list of long track medal winners, but Bokko's bronze was their first here -- and their first in men's competition since 1998. Meanwhile, Korea and Japan have become powers in the sports; they've won six medals in Vancouver, though they were shut out Saturday.

Davis was a clear favorite in this event. He is the world-record holder, setting the mark of 1:41.04 in Salt Lake last December, and he also won the silver medal in Turin, making him the first American to win medals in the 1,500 in consecutive Olympics. He's also the World Cup leader in the event by a hefty margin over Bokko.

Davis also won the 1,500 at the world single distance championships in 2007 and 2009. In 2008 he took silver, second to his good friend Denny Morrison of Canada. Morrison has struggled at these Games, finishing 13th in the 1,000, 18th in the 5,000 and 9th here Saturday night.

Hedrick is third in the World Cup 1,500 standings and won the bronze in this event in Italy, where he and Davis had what could charitably be described as a contentious relationship. That rift, however, seems to be healed, judging by their behavior in sharing the podium in the 1,000.

But now Hedrick is gone, and Davis -- assuming he returns for Sochi in 2014 -- will be the veteran leader of the team. And unless U.S. Speedskating has some talent percolating in the pipelines, he might be the U.S. team. That's a lot of weight to bear. Good thing he's got those speedskating thighs.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company