Shani Davis Talks Olympic Victory, Blackness

Ice speed-skater Shani Davis leaves the Winter Olympic Games with a gold and a silver medal. He speaks with host Michel Martin about his Olympic victory and how he feels about being touted as the first African-American to win a medal in an individual sport in the Winter Olympic Games.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

He is one of this country's most recognizable figures at this year's Winter Olympics, both because of who he is and what he has done. In 2006, Shani Davis became the first black athlete to win a gold medal in an individual event in the Winter Games. But then the grumbling started. The media complained he wouldn't do interviews, didn't practice with his team, and one teammate publicly accused him of being selfish. This year, he's done it again, going home with a gold in 1,000-meter race and a silver in 1,500. But the grumbling seems to have evaporated, and now Davis is looking ahead to 2014. But before he does that, he's with us by phone from Vancouver. Welcome, and congratulations.

Mr. SHANI DAVIS (Speed Skater): Why, thank you. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: How does it feel the second time around? Does it feel sweeter? Is it sort of ho-hum? What's it like?

Mr. DAVIS: Well, I would say that there's definitely been a relief of a pressure and stressful situations off my shoulders, just being able to come here and perform so well and be able to make history. And to defend my thousand-meter title from four years ago was very tremendous.

MARTIN: Your teammate, Chad Hedrick, says that he thought that the 1,500 was stolen from you. Do you agree?

Mr. DAVIS: No. I don't believe that anything belongs to you personally until you go out there and you race. You have to earn it. I mean, that's why you have the competition.

MARTIN: I think a lot of people, including your teammates, talk about of the effort you put into that race. And I don't want to take anything away from the 1,000, where you won the gold, but just - you just saw the effort on your face in the 1,500. Do you mind talking about what was going through your mind then?

Mr. DAVIS: Well, the ice wasn't very optimal from me. My skating style requires more finesse and strength, and - but, like, there's no real excuse to pinpoint my lack of strength that day. It was just the guy, he had a tremendous race -the guy from Holland. And he had a lot of help in this race with his pairing, because he got like a few big drafts, whereas I was out there by myself skating that whole thing by myself.

MARTIN: You sound good. You sound very Zen, almost, I want to say.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Do you feel more relaxed? Do you feel like you've just - at sort of a good place in your career and in your life?

Mr. DAVIS: Yeah. I mean, this is, by far, the best Olympics I've ever experienced. And I hope that this momentum continues on and carries throughout the rest of my skating career and my endeavors.

MARTIN: Why is that, though? You know, there was so much sort of grinching around you after the last Olympics, and, you know, your attitude and yada, yada, yada. I mean, there was a nice moment this year with your teammate, Chad Hedrick, after you won the gold, where the two of you held up the American flag. I don't know, has just - what do you think's changed this time around that you seem to be having a great time, both athletically, but personally?

Mr. DAVIS: Well, last time, there was a lot of misunderstanding. There was a lot of miscommunication between what I was eligible to do and what I wasn't eligible to do, and things that misconstrued. It's something I actually wouldn't really like to revisit or talk about.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DAVIS: It's over and it's done with, and I have moved forward from then. But I think the biggest difference is that people aren't on the attack to me, and I'm not on the defense trying to, you know, protect myself from people that are trying to scrutinize me.

MARTIN: I do want to ask, and you - for a lot of reason - in part, your achievements are certainly appreciated in their own right, but there is the added dimension of your being an African-American and being a trailblazer for your sport. And I do want to ask you if you feel that race plays any part in the dynamic around you.

Mr. DAVIS: I mean, race is one of those things that you come into the world having. And - well, Michael Joyce told me, he said when people ask him, he says his race is the 1,000 meters. But for me, it's a bit more obvious. My race is, you know, I'm black. And I think it's a tremendous accomplishment, what I was able to do. But, I mean, I feel like we're so more forward and more advanced than times, and I don't think that it should be that big of a deal, really. I mean, it's not like I'm not allowed to go to the library and be educated or like I'm segregated. I mean, I have all the tools that I need to perform and compete.

MARTIN: So do you want to be in next year's Black History Month calendar or not?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DAVIS: Well, again, like I said, it's a tremendous accomplishment. And I'm not hiding the fact that I'm black. It's just that too many people - it's almost like they're taken away from me being a - like me being human. I'm human. And, okay, and I'm black. There's tons of African-Americans that are successful in things that aren't dominated by African-Americans or blacks. I mean, this is a time and age where I feel it's not as important as what it used to be back in the day when people were held back and they weren't allow to do things, like maybe a Jackie Robinson or Jack Johnson.

I mean, this is - we're in 2010. So I mean, why does it have to be as big deal as it was? I mean...

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DAVIS: ...it was in 2006, and in 2010, I did it again. So, I mean, what's the big deal?

MARTIN: What does it take to be great at your sport?

Mr. DAVIS: I would say that you have to have heart. You have to have a lot of dedication. And then you just have to have the passion to be able to go out there and put in the time. And you have to just have fun and enjoy yourself. I - every day I step out on the ice, there's a new challenge for me. And I just have fun. I enjoy myself.

MARTIN: A lot of - obviously, a lot of kids who will be watching - watch the -always watch the Winter Olympics. And a lot of times when you talk to athletes who are competing, they'll say, well, I saw this when I was a kid, and this is what inspired me. So for the kids who have been watching you this Olympics, what would you like them to learn from you?

Mr. DAVIS: Well, I just want them to know that if you go out there and you believe in the things that you're doing and you believe in the things that you worked hard for throughout your life and you're very passionate about it, it doesn't matter what people say or how people perceive it or take it. I mean, it's just work hard and, you know, truly believing yourself and be strong, be a strong individual. Learn how to be independent. Stay strong and stay focused and, you know, don't quit until the job's done.

MARTIN: And, finally, before we - as you were coming out to program, you mentioned that you're still - you're actually on your way to practice. You're still practicing. I think a lot of people would think, well, gosh. I thought, you know, you - the job's done and, you know, time to go home and have a nice party. You're still competing. You're headed to races in Europe, right, after this. So I guess when I'm asking is: What's next for you? And what about 2014?

Mr. DAVIS: I told myself after 2006 that the silver medal in the 1,500 meters would push me and train me, and it's going to give me great pleasure to be able to have the opportunity again to compete for the highest ranking in that race, which is a gold medal. So, four years later, I came into the Olympics, I was much stronger, much more focused, much more hungry and driven. But I had a lot of pressure on me. But under all those circumstances, I was able to come away again with a gold and silver. I have four medals in my career now, two gold and two silvers. And I think it's not meant for me, exactly, to be done with the sport of speed skating.

So I think that's why the things happened the way they did in the 1,500 meters. So I think it is something about me that has to go to Russia and just - I don't know. I'm not going to say right away and disrespect to my competitors say I'm going for gold. I'm just going out there to do the best I can hope that the best I can is the best on a given day. But I'm just thrilled about having the opportunity to be able to compete. I love competing, and I love the challenge. I love - I just love the whole atmosphere of it.

MARTIN: You're sure you don't want to be on the calendar, now? Last chance?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DAVIS: Well, see, you're not trying to put words in my mouth.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: No, no, I'm just having fun with you.

Mr. DAVIS: I told you, I am black. I'm proud to be black.

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. DAVIS: Ain't nothing else I would rather be.

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. DAVIS: I'm very proud of it.

MARTIN: Okay, all right. Okay. You know I'm just teasing you. Come on.

Mr. DAVIS: Okay, you're just teasing me, okay.

MARTIN: Yeah.

Mr. DAVIS: Sometimes I get defensive. I don't want anyone to misunderstand me. I'm 100 percent proud of what I'm and what I've accomplished.

MARTIN: Shani Davis won gold and silver medals in this year's Winter Olympics, repeating his performance in the 2006 Olympics in Italy. He is the first African-American athlete, the first black athlete to win a Winter Games Olympic gold medal in an individual event. And he joined us by phone from Vancouver. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. DAVIS: Thank you very much.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more on Monday.

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