Local skater was alternate in Salt Lake

By Jennifer Bussell

Although he is the first black to qualify for the U.S. Olympic short track speed skating team, Hyde Park native Shani Davis is not competing in the men’s 5,000 meter relay as planned. Davis, who now divides his time between Colorado Springs and Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood, will leave the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics early to compete at the World Junior Speed Skating Championships in Collalbo, Italy next month.

“They didn’t pick him to skate, so he didn’t skate,” said Davis’s mother, Cherie Davis, in a phone interview from their Rogers Park home. Shani originally made the team as one of six relay team members, four of whom would be chosen to skate in the 5000 meter. According to his mother, Davis was not picked by U.S. speed skating coach Susan Ellis because the chosen team members are more experienced, having won the world championship together last year.

The rest of the U.S. Junior World team left for Italy February 14, in time to practice for this weekend’s Junior Country Match, which leads up to the championships. Davis knew going into the Olympics that he was eligible for the Junior Worlds and would have the option of taking a bye and withdrawing from the Olympics to focus on the Junior competition. According to Cherie Davis, he talked to the Olympic coaches January 7 about leaving Salt Lake City early. “What they said was ‘Stick around until the 17th,'” CherieDavis said.

Shani Davis remained at Salt Lake until February 17, missing the opportunity to travel to Italy with the World Junior Championship team, and was still not chosen to skate. “I think he’s angry about being mistreated and misled,” his mother said. “He doesn’t mind them picking more experienced people.”

Shani Davis made the Olympic team by winning the 1000 meter time trial amidst allegations of race fixing. 1998 U.S. Olympian Tommy O’Hare, who did not make this year’s team, filed a complaint stating that teammates Apolo Ohno and Rusty Smith fixed the race to help their friend Davis make the team. O’Hare withdrew his request after an arbitrator ruled there was not enough evidence to support the allegation. “It was a shame,” Cherie Davis said. “I think there was a problem. Maybe he was a little too popular. It was lots of things. Probably race was involved with some people: probably some didn’t want him to make the team because he is black.”

Shani Davis was born in Hyde Park and lived here until 1992, attending neighborhood Catholic schools. “He was raised in Hyde Park,” his mother said. “He always has fond memories of that.”

His involvement with speed skating began when he was a rambunctious toddler. “When he was about two-and-a-half, I was trying to find something for him to do because he was so active,” his mother said. “We started roller skating together.”

Roller skating quickly turned into speed skating with the help of Cherie Davis’s boss, Fred Benjamin. Benjamin, then a Chicago lawyer, now president of U.S. Speedskating, had a son involved in the sport.

“Finally somebody told me he wasn’t really interested in this roller skating; all he really wanted to do was go fast, so he should try speed skating,” Cherie Davis said. “Shani’s been doing it ever since.”

At 6’2″, Davis the tallest member of the U.S. speed skating team. He trains in Colorado Springs approximately three months a year and competes internationally for another six months. “He lives in Chicago,” his mother said. “Chicago he considers his home.”

Davis stayed at the Olympic Village with the other U.S. athletes while in Salt Lake and communicated with his mother, who was unable to attend, via his cellular phone provided by the U.S. Olympic Committee. “I always go to the competitions that he really needs me to be at,” Cherie Davis said. “I want to let him enjoy the Olympic experience.”

As for her son not being able to race in the 2002 games, Davis is confident this is not the end of the line.

“Shani is a 2002 Olympian. Nobody can take that away from him. He’s happy. He has a really bright future ahead of him…Oh, I’m sure he’ll try again in four years.”

Davis is the first American to qualify for two U.S. world junior track teams: he placed 11th overall at the 2000 World Junior Short Track Championships and 10th overall at the 2000 World Junior Speed Skating Championships.

The U.S. men’s team of Ron Biondo, Apolo Anton Ohno, Rusty Smith, and Daniel Weinstein finished first in its heat in the 5000 meter semifinals to qualify for the finals, which will be held Saturday.