Speedskater Shani Davis: 'Progress Is Being Made'
NEAL CONAN, Host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.
In three days, the Olympic torch arrives in Vancouver to kick off the 2010 Winter Games. Athletes from around the world are gathered to compete on ice and snow, assuming it ever does snow in Vancouver. And many will remember one of the biggest events in sports history, which happened at the games 30 years ago today.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
Unidentified Announcer #1: You've got 10 seconds. The countdown's going on right now. Morrow, up to Silk. Five seconds left in the game.
Unidentified Announcer #2: Do you believe in miracles? Yes!
Announcer #1: Unbelievable.
CONAN: Miracles are hard to come by, but we will get to see Alexander Ovechkin's Russians and Sidney's Crosby's Canadians among the great athletes and great stories in Vancouver.
Later in the program, we hope to speak with the speed skater Shani Davis, who qualifies on both those counts. And we'll check in with NPR correspondents on the scene, Howard Berkes and Tom Goldman.
We also want to hear from those of you who have participated in the Winter Olympic Games, or call us and tell us what you're looking forward to in the next coming weeks.
TALK OF THE NATION: 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can join the conversation on our Web site, as well. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, Shabba Doo on 40 years of "Soul Train." But first, we welcome Shani Davis, who, among many other accomplishments, became the first black athlete to win a Winter Olympics gold medal in an individual event four years ago. Many believe he is in a great position to collect a couple more, maybe even more than that this year. He joins us by phone from Vancouver in the Olympic village. I know you have a busy schedule. Thanks very much for taking time out to speak with us.
SHANI DAVIS: Well, thanks for contacting me.
CONAN: For a week or so, the rest of us get to glimpse a sport - into a world that you live in every day. What would you tell us is the most important thing for us outsiders to understand about your sport?
DAVIS: Well, it's kind of hard to understand because the sport is kind of a pastime sport, a winter sport from America. There's a lot of things that have changed within those times that most people remember speed skating as being.
So I would say they just need to realize that it's a really exciting sport, and a lot of new things are out there happening. And they have a lot of fast skaters, and we have a lot of good skaters that can contend with the best of the world.
CONAN: You are a rare bird for, among other things, being world class - not just as a speed skater, but for short-track speed skating. I think a lot of people know the name of Anton Ohno. What's the difference between those two sports?
DAVIS: Well, short-track speed skating is done in a hockey rink, a size rink that's about 111 meters, compared to the long-track rinks, which is a 400-meter track. So I would say the biggest difference is short tracks are more of a packed - skater versus skater, whereas long track's more against the clock.
CONAN: And the discipline involved in racing against the clock, you have to have a clock inside your own head, don't you?
DAVIS: Yeah, you kind of have to know where you need to be at on the track and all given points and times throughout the race. And we have a coach on the backstretch that flashes us a lap board that kind of allows us to know where we're at and how we're doing throughout the race.
CONAN: What do you think about when you're going through the turn and then down that long straightaway?
DAVIS: I just try to focus on and think about things that I've been doing all year round to kind of perfect my techniques that will allow me to go the fastest I can possibly go that given day.
CONAN: We mentioned that you are the first black athlete to win a gold medal in the Winter Olympic Games in an individual event. What does that mean to you?
DAVIS: Well, it's nice to be among the - a pioneer of any sport in America or even so in the world, but I was just happy to accomplish my dreams and goals in speed skating.
CONAN: Do you consider yourself an outsider in this small world of speed skating, or an insider? You have tremendous achievements.
DAVIS: Well, I try not to view myself as an outsider. I feel like I'm becoming more and more accepted. So that's a good thing. So I guess there's - progress is being made. But I'm just amongst - I'm just a rare entity to the sport of speed skating. So I guess sometimes it's hard to understand that sometimes. A lot of people don't understand it, but that's okay. That's cool.
CONAN: This is an individual sport. Sometimes your greatest rivals are members of your own national team, people who are also going for medals in the same events.
DAVIS: Yeah, I wouldn't argue with you there. That happens most of the times in this sport, speed skating.
CONAN: Nevertheless, is there a sense of teammates and being a team and rooting for the other guys?
DAVIS: Yeah. I'm always wishing all my competitors well. Yeah, I'm always wishing them well and hoping that they do their best, you know, any given day. So, yeah, we cheer for each other and we wish each other well. Yeah.
CONAN: There's a relatively new event in speed skating which is called the pursuit, where three - it's like a relay race, I guess. And both in Turin four years ago and this time around, you've declined to participate. You've said you weren't interested. You hadn't trained for that. Why is that?
DAVIS: It's - all my life, I've been training on my own. I've never really been a part of the long-track national team, and usually, that event seems to just not correlate or respond to what it is I'm trying to do or accomplish within skating.
In 2006, I wasn't considered eligible for the team pursuit. So it wasn't that I dropped out or I made myself ineligible for it. It's just that I wasn't even asked or considered to be a part of the 2006 team - pursuit team. And then in 2010 here, there was a whole bunch of things going on, but - and I actually even tried to see if we could make a good fit, but just things didn't work out. So I decided this time not to be a part of it.
CONAN: And stepped out fairly early on so others could go ahead with the training and have the best shot.
DAVIS: That's right.
CONAN: As you look ahead to the events, you're going to be skating in several, from the sprints at 500 meters, I think, all the way up to 5,000?
DAVIS: That's correct.
CONAN: And you are favored - I don't want to put a jinx on you, but you're favored in both the 1,000 and the 1,500.
DAVIS: Yeah, that's what people are saying, but I always try to view myself as an underdog.
CONAN: Really? Does that help motivate you?
DAVIS: I think it does, because you don't want - I don't want to - I'm not the type of athlete that likes to become very comfortable with what I've accomplished already or throughout the reason. Every day brings a new challenge, and I hope that I can rise above those challenges and be very successful.
CONAN: So it is that - so is a little of - despite all you've done - and you're one of the best in the world, a lot of people say one of the best ever. Despite all you've done, that little bit of fear every day, does that - is that part of what makes you go?
DAVIS: Well, I don't consider it fear. I'm - it's just that you don't want to count your chickens before they hatch from the egg, I would say. I just think that you have to take it day by day. And if there was such a thing as - you know, that's why we have the competition. The competition is held to be able to define who's Olympic, you know, gold, silver or bronze.
CONAN: And there is, after every time you compete, generally, and these - who gets to start when is drawn by lot, I guess. So most of the time after you've skated your race and there's only one other skater on the track with you at the same time on the rink with you, you have to sit around and watch everybody else race and look at their times.
DAVIS: Yeah. It can be quite nerve-wracking sometimes. But if I put up a pretty good time, I'm fairly confident. But you - then again, you just never know what anyone can that given - you know, that day of competition. Olympics brings out another type of competitor in a lot of athletes.
CONAN: Most people in this country, I regret, probably wouldn't recognize you if they ran into you on the street. That's not the same in Europe. You're a superstar in Europe.
DAVIS: Well, yeah, kind of in Europe, but I like it that way. I like being - I'm more of a private type of guy. I don't like the recognition and things like that, the celebrity status of being, you know, a "superstar athlete," you know, quote-unquote. I don't care for all the recognition and things like that. I'm more of a private type of guy.
CONAN: And what do you plan to do when you're finished speed skating? There's a limited life to any athlete.
DAVIS: Oh, well, I think that I'll just try to, you know, give back to the people that have helped me, helped raise me and nurture me and guide me in the right direction and put me on the right path.
I would love to do a lot of things with kids and younger youth, and hopefully I can try to help influence and motivate them to achieve their goals and dreams, as well.
CONAN: You grew up in Chicago, and your mother had to move you and her to the north end of the city to have access to a speed skating oval so you could practice when you were a youngster. Would you like to see the sport develop in places like Chicago?
DAVIS: It would be nice if the sport were to develop, but I feel like it's not a sport that's popular enough to be able to grasp the mainstream attention away from basketball and football and other sports where children see superstar athletes on a daily basis making millions of dollars.
So it's more of a grass-roots level type of personal type of interest sport. So if people want to partake in speed skating, they have an interest in it because they see it once every four years on the television, I would really love that. But we don't have the right type of exposure to be able to grow into a mainstream sport. So the sport has stayed very small, and I would say not even the best people ever even truly had a chance, the most talented grass-root level of kids never even had a chance to even speed skate because they just don't know anything about it.
CONAN: Well, Shani Davis, we wish you the best of luck. Thanks very much for taking the time to be with us today.
DAVIS: No problem. Thanks a lot, guys.
CONAN: USA speed skater Shani Davis, favored to win one, maybe two, maybe more medals this Winter Olympic Games in the various events. He'll be racing from 500 to 5,000 meters.
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