Shani Davis skating to second place in the 1,500 meters Saturday in the U.S. World Cup team selection meet. He has made the team in two events already. (Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images)
By Philip Hersh
MILWAUKEE -- The only question left for Olympic speedskating champion Shani Davis of Chicago to answer at the long track World Cup team selection meet that ends Sunday is the one that led to an enormous controversy at the 2006 Winter Olympics.
And that is whether he wants to be considered for the team pursuit event at the 2010 Olympics.
Davis, 27, who has shown again the last four days that he is the country's preeminent speedskater, must tell U.S. Speedskating officials Sunday whether he wants to be in the five-man pool for the team pursuit, four of whom will be selected for the 2010 Olympics in the event. (Three skate in the race.)
Saturday, after he finished second to Chad Hedrick in the 1,500 meters by 2/100ths of a second, Davis was asked what he intented to tell U.S. Speedskating about his interest in the team pursuit.
"We'll just have to see,'' Davis said. "I can't predict the future.''
That seemed to sound like a no, but one thing is certain: No matter what Davis decides, the current U.S. Speedskating leadership won't hang him out to dry the way their predecessors did in 2006. Instead, they intend to make a public statement of support for his choice.
Although Davis told the federation well before the 2006 Olympics began that he did not want to skate the pursuit, preferring to concenrate on his individual events, its officials never corrected reports that he had chosen to withdraw at the last minute. That left him open to a firestorm of criticism, especially when Hedrick accused Davis of betrayal for not skating the pursuit, saying Davis' decision cost Hedrick and the U.S. team a gold medal.
Hedrick would like Davis to on the pursuit team next February but he too will simply accept whatever Davis prefers to do.
"I would love for him to be part of it,'' Hedrick said. "If he wants to, we're going to have a great team. If he doesn't, we're still going to have some great skaters to fill that spot.
"There would be nothing better than for him to want to be a part of it. Gold medals are hard enough to win, and we've got one sitting right in front of us.''
The way both skated Saturday, either could wind up with gold in the 1,500. And the third finisher, Trevor Marsicano, could make it a U.S. sweep in Vancouver.
Hedrick won in one minute, 44.47 seconds, shaving 1/100th from the Pettit Center track record Davis set a year ago. Davis clocked 1:44.49. Both were well under the time of 1:46:17 in which Davis won the event in the 2009 World Single Distance Championships last March on the 2010 Olympic oval, where the ice conditions are similar to here.
"That's a big message we're delivering to the whole world by skating 1:44s in October,'' Davis said.
And the effect of that message on the U.S. skaters' rivals?
"I think they are going to be pretty scared,'' Davis said. ``In all fairness, I think they are going to be pretty afraid.''
Davis won Thursday's 5,000 against Hedrick by 2/100ths of a second. Davis also finished third in the 500 and won the first of the two races in the 1,000. The world team meet finishes Sunday with the second 1,000 (the winner is based on the better of the two times) and the 10,000. Davis has qualified for the World Cup team in the 500 and 1,500 and is a lock to make it in the 1,000 and the 5,000/10,000 combo.
Each country gets Olympic spots based on results in the five World Cup meets this fall.
"I'm stronger and faster than I have ever been in my life,'' Davis said.
That says something for a guy who has won Olympic gold and silver medals, world all-around and sprint titles, world single distance titles and set multiple world records.
To Hedrick, beating Davis also said something.
"To beat a guy of that stature, who was so consistent last year. . . . I'm trying to work my way back to the top, and that's a big step for me,'' Hedrick said.
Hedrick won a medal of each color at the 2006 Olympics. He was third and Davis second in the Olympic 1,500, but their achievements were subsumed in the controversy Hedrick started.
"I think it would be a great story for him and I to enjoy (the 2010 Olympics),'' Hedrick said. ``I feel like last time we worked so hard for America to be proud of us and everything happened and it went south from there. I hope everyone enjoys it a little more than they did last time.''
"I would love to enjoy an Olympics,'' Davis said. ``One out of my three would be nice.''
In 2002, Davis' selection to the Olympic short track team was mired in controversy that also was not of his doing. He did not compete in those Winter Games.
"Let's just say I haven't had the best Olympics, having fun-wise,'' Davis said. ``Every day, I'm having more and more fun. I enjoy the level of competition and going out there trying to be the best I can be.''
He is already the sport's gold standard.
-- Philip Hersh