Originally created 12/23/01

Davis becomes first black to make U.S. Olympic speedskating team



KEARNS, Utah -- Shani Davis became the first black to qualify for the U.S. Olympic speedskating team in a race tinged with controversy after he beat close friend and World Cup champion Apolo Anton Ohno on Saturday.

Davis, a former roller skater from Chicago, went right to the lead of the 1,000-meter short-track final and stayed there, holding off Ohno and two other skaters in the last race of the Olympic trials.

"I needed to win big, all or nothing," said Davis, who at 6-foot-2 is the tallest American skater in a sport where gravity favors those who are built low to the ice.

The 19-year-old Davis jumped from eighth to sixth in the standings to grab the last berth for the Salt Lake Games. He had to win the race or wait another four years.

"I'm overwhelmed with joy right now," said Davis, who started skating on ice at 5, around the same time his parents divorced.

Ohno won the first seven races of the trials and had already secured his spot on the Olympic team before the last event.

Ohno stayed back in third and never made a serious push for the lead, shying away from the daring passes he used in his victories.

After Davis crossed the finish line, Ohno skated up from behind and grabbed his friend in a congratulatory embrace. Davis pumped his arms in triumph and high-fived spectators along the boards as he glided through a cooldown lap.

National short-track coach Susan Ellis questioned whether Ohno tried to win and asked him about his tactics afterward.

"He says he was playing it safe. That's what he says," she said. "The talk and suspicion is kind of troubling. But Shani skated a great race, that's the bottom line."

Ohno denied that he was more concerned about Davis getting on the team than winning.

"I played it safe," the 19-year-old skater from Seattle said. "He ran his own race."

Davis agreed that nothing shady went on between the friends. "That's real low. I don't know anything about that," he said.

Rusty Smith of Sunset Beach, Calif., was second, Ohno third and Ron Biondo of Broadview Heights, Ohio, fourth.

Smith, who needed to finish ahead of Biondo to race in the 1,000 at the Olympics, scoffed at the idea that the outcome was orchestrated.

"There's way too much involved. There's no way to set up a race, especially when me and Ron are competing for an individual spot," Smith said.

"Apolo has won every race, and the last thing he needs to do is go down. I went to pass Shani a couple of times and I couldn't get by," Smith added.

Davis needed the 987 points that went with first place in order to move into sixth, knocking 1998 Olympian Tommy O'Hare of Colorado Springs, Colo., off the team.

O'Hare stormed out of the Olympic Oval without talking to reporters.

"Tommy has been a part of the team for a long time. He brought a lot of experience to the team. It's tough," Ellis said. "He was pretty angry. He was too upset to talk about it."

Biondo said he understood O'Hare's frustration.

"It affected a lot of people the way it went," he said. "I don't know if there was a plan or not. It's hard for me to say. They're my teammates."

Until his victory, Davis' best finish in the previous seven races was fifth in the nine-lap time trial. He hadn't reached an 'A' final until Saturday.

"It's my first Olympic trials and I was a little scared a couple of times," he said. "I wasn't feeling good on the blades or the ice. I wasn't used to the hard ice. I just didn't feel like me."

To get out of his funk, Davis spent Friday night playing video games and dining with friends. He woke up Saturday refreshed and in a better frame of mind, even joking to his mother, Cherie, that he would win the 1,000 and make the Olympic team.

"Inside there was a little piece that said you can do it. When you're skating against Apolo, things are just little inside of you," he said.

"When I saw two laps to go, that little feeling was about this big. It was huge," he said, spreading his hands apart.

Davis was raised by his mother in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood. She spent hours driving him to clubs in Evanston, where the other skaters were black, and later Northbrook.

"I thought speedskating was a black sport," Davis said, smiling. "I go to Northbrook and I see all these white kids and I was just like, 'Wow, there is a world outside of Evanston.' "

Davis shared his victory with his mother, a secretary who used to wake her son up every morning to run a mile when he was eight.

"My mom always pushed me," he said. "She really wanted it for me and I'm happy I could repay her."

Joining Ohno, Smith, Biondo and Davis on the men's short-track Olympic team are J.P. Kepka of St. Louis and Daniel Weinstein of Chestnut Hill, Mass.

On the women's team are Allison Baver of Sinking Spring, Pa., Julie Goskowicz of Colorado Springs, Colo., Mary Griglak of Berea, Ohio, Caroline Hallisey of Natick, Mass., Amy Peterson of Maplewood, Minn., and Erin Porter of Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Peterson, 30, is a three-time Olympic medalist competing in her fourth Winter Games.