Shani Davis feels ‘defeated,’ but not by suits

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SOCHI, Russia – One thought became clear as Shani Davis meandered through post-race media responsibilities, a half-hour that could best be described as melancholy.

This was about far more than speed skating suits.

A wardrobe change couldn’t save Davis and his teammates in the 1500m on Saturday.

The four-time Olympic medalist was 11th in his final individual race of these Olympics and perhaps his career.

Four years is a long time to dwell on what went wrong. To lay the blame solely on a suit in a sport that requires incredible mental and physical strength seems a bit silly. That said, skaters’ psyches were clearly affected by the drama of the past few days. Mentally, an about-face wasn’t in the cards.

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Davis was 11th after winning 2006 and 2010 Olympic silver medals in the event. Earlier in Sochi, he finished eighth in the 1000m after entering as the two-time defending Olympic champion.

His U.S. teammates were eighth, 22nd and 37th on Saturday.

Twenty one medals have been awarded in speed skating. None have gone to American skaters. The U.S. has won more Winter Olympic medals in speed skating than in any other sport. It’s a disaster.

“We have no medals, man,” Davis said. “We have none. The way things are looking, we might not get any.”

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The lack of early returns led to a drastic majority decision by the U.S. 1500m quartet Friday night.

They would toss aside the new suits designed for them by Under Armour, billed as the world’s fastest, and zip up the ones they wore during a World Cup season of across-the-board success. Under Armour also designed those suits.

They didn’t make a difference Saturday.

“At the end of the day, the paper says I’m eighth, and the paper says I’m 11th,” Davis said. “It doesn’t say because of suits, because of lack of confidence or whatever you had to deal with. It just says eighth and 11th. That’s what I have to live with.”

The four U.S. men, three of whom have won World Cup medals in the 1000m or 1500m this season, cited more than just suits – specifically poor pacing, a lack of feel for the ice and, in Davis’ case, a pairing partner he couldn’t size up well against, like for drafting.

That’s not to say they made excuses. It more points to the fact that speed skating races come down to several variables. It is a meticulous sport that requires psychological strength just as it does lung capacity.

“If you don’t feel right skating, it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing,” said Joey Mantia, who was 22nd. “You could be wearing a trash bag or the best suit in the world, you’re still going to suck.”

Davis wasn’t mentally there, either. He cited distractions, bad timing over the suit kerfuffle, but, most of all, a state of mind before going to the start line at Adler Arena.

“I felt defeated,” Davis said.

Davis had skated his best in the 1000m three days ago, and, for the first time in his long time, his best wasn’t anywhere near the world’s best.

“It plays with me in my head,” he said. “It makes me question some of the things that I’ve done leading up to these races. I’m not necessarily sure what is to blame for whatever, but I know that whatever happened that day really took a big toll on me. It was really hard to build myself up and go out there and think I was the world’s fastest skater when in reality I’m across the line eighth.”

Davis, 31, keeps a detailed journal of his training and competition times and feelings. You wonder what he’ll write about Sochi.

“We spent a lot of energy here focusing on things that we didn’t quite necessarily have to focus on in the past,” Davis said. “I’m sure none of my competitors had to deal with half of what I had to deal with while I’ve been here, but there’s no real excuse for it. I’m a professional. I’m one of the best speed skaters in the world. I just didn’t have it.”

Davis spoke at length about how his perception back home has changed from 2006 to 2010 to now.

He had a reputation, right or wrong, as a lone-wolf skater in the past. These Olympics were going to be different.

He expressed interest in skating the team pursuit for the first time. He’s been more marketed than ever before, with sponsorship deals ranging from McDonald’s to Ralph Lauren and Under Armour.

“It kills me inside to know that the attention I’m getting now, these are the things I’ve always wanted since 2002,” Davis said. “I wanted to be a speed skater that the Americans knew, loved, followed and cheered for. I worked hard to get that in 2006, and it didn’t quite go my way. In 2010, I didn’t have anyone working for me in that corner to pull those people in my corner. Now, in 2014, I had the whole country behind me, all kinds of sponsors following me. I had everything going into it, but I come away with nothing to show them and give them, to say thank you for believing in me and following me. So, I’m really disappointed, not only for myself, that I couldn’t meet my expectations, but for the people that have been tuning in, watching, view parties, things like that. I’m very disappointed.”

Davis earned that attention as the king of speed skating, the greatest middle distance skater of all time.

So he is not accustomed to finishing eighth and 11th. He is not alone among U.S. Olympic champions to descend here – Bode Miller, Hannah Kearney, Shaun White. Doubts creep in.

“You start questioning if you’ve still got what it takes,” he said.

Davis made it clear in honestly answering questions, even when U.S. speed skating tried to hold him back, that he wasn’t making excuses.

Sure, the suit situation was not ideal. But it’s about so much more than the suit.

It’s about one of the greatest U.S. Olympians, and the wonder if we’ll be able to cherish his racing on this stage, at the highest level, ever again.

“It’s a good thing I won some in the past,” Davis said, “so I still have something to hold onto.”

Several women’s players spurn worlds inquiry from USA Hockey

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As sports organizations and notable hockey figures express support of the U.S. women’s team, several players say they rejected overtures from USA Hockey to serve as replacements for the upcoming world championships.

Two players told The Associated Press on Friday that USA Hockey reached out to them to gauge their interest for the worlds, which begin next week in Plymouth, Michigan.

Brittany Ott, a goaltender for the Boston Pride of the National Women’s Hockey League, and Annie Pankowski, a junior forward at the University of Wisconsin, said the email from USA Hockey was not an invitation but rather an inquiry about their availability.

“I responded to that email and I said I’m not willing,” Pankowski said.

A third player, goalie Lauren Dahm, told the AP on Saturday she also turned down an invitation. Dahm plays for the Canadian Women’s Hockey League Boston Blades.

The U.S. team has said it plans to boycott the worlds over a wage dispute with USA Hockey, which confirmed Thursday it would begin reaching out to potential replacement players. Several players posted messages on social media saying they support the national team and would decline or have declined any outreach from USA Hockey.

“From a personal standpoint I have never been invited to a USA Hockey series or camp or anything like that and I would honestly love to be invited to something like that,” Ott said by phone. “However at the current time, this is a fight that I believe in and I’m definitely going to stand up and help fight as much as I can.”

Many players posted a version of a Jerry Rice quote on Twitter on Friday: “Today I will do what others won’t so tomorrow I can do what others can’t. I said no to USAH & will not play in the 2017WC.” Not all players who tweeted that message were asked by USA Hockey if they could play.

On Saturday, NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith joined the chorus of support for the players, saying on Twitter the organization stands behind their pursuit of fairness and equality.

“These women understand inequality when they see it and are expressing their right to be treated fairly as athletes and workers,” Smith tweeted. “Of course, they have the NFLPA’s support in daring to withhold their services until a fair agreement is reached.”

Philadelphia Flyers coach Dave Hakstol posted his support on Twitter, calling players competitors and role models.

On Friday, the NHL Players’ Association and Major League Baseball players posted messages of support. The NHLPA posted on Twitter that it supports players and panned USA Hockey’s bid to stock the team with replacements, adding that the decision “would only serve to make relations, now and in the future, much worse.”

The MLBPA encouraged all female hockey players to stand united behind their national team colleagues.

Players are seeking a four-year contract that includes payments outside the six-month Olympic period. The sides met for 10-plus hours Monday, but players have called USA Hockey’s counterproposal “disappointing.”

USA Hockey said Thursday its priority was to have all the players selected for the national team on the ice March 31 when the tournament begins. But the organization added that it informed players’ representatives it would begin reaching out to potential replacements with the tournament coming up.

Star national team forward Hilary Knight said last week she wished USA Hockey luck putting together a suitable team of replacements to defend the gold medal because the player pool was united in the dispute. Ott and Pankowski said they had not heard from any players expressing a willingness to play in worlds.

“It’s a very unified front,” Ott said. “It’s a tight-knit community that we have in women’s hockey here. This is definitely a big opportunity for us to make a big change and have a big impact on our sport and have it grow. We’re all standing together.”

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World Figure Skating Championships pairs preview

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Volosozhar and Trankov couldn’t do it. Neither did Shen and Zhao. Nor Gordeeva and Grinkov.

Canadians Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford can win a third straight pairs world title next week, a feat not seen since Irina Rodnina and Alexander Zaitsev of the Soviet Union won six in a row from 1973 through 1978.

But they don’t feel like favorites.

“We’re coming in a little more under the radar,” Radford said.

They lost their two most recent international competitions — third at the Grand Prix Final in December; second at the Four Continents Championships in February.

Duhamel and Radford are seeded fifth by best international scores this season going into the world championships in Helsinki (broadcast schedule here).

“Sometimes it feels like worlds last year was so long ago,” Radford said.

Last year in Boston, Duhamel and Radford had the performance of their seven-year partnership in the world championships free skate. They tallied a personal-best 153.81 points, more than seven points clear of their previous best.

It was easily enough to overtake Chinese short-program leaders Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, who were relegated to silver behind the Canadians for a second straight year.

This season, Duhamel and Radford haven’t come within 13 points of their 2016 World Championships total. Duhamel went through “an unforeseeable circumstance” in her personal life in November that she chooses not to reveal.

They implemented the throw triple Axel, but Duhamel fell three times in a four-event stretch this fall. They lost by nearly 13 points at December’s Grand Prix Final, which ended with a Duhamel backstage meltdown.

“We never fell like that at home [in practice],” Duhamel said on the IceTalk podcast. “It started to shake us up a little bit.”

They replaced the throw triple Axel in their program. Without it in February, both skaters had trouble with jumps at Four Continents at the 2018 Olympic venue and finished nearly 13 points behind Sui and Han.

“We kind of went back to square one, to the drawing board after Four Continents, reassessing what’s gone on this season, why are we underperforming, why are we not succeeding in competition the way we are training,” Duhamel said.

They made program changes, notably on their throw and jump entrances and overhauling the footwork in their short program.

Duhamel adopted a rescue dog from South Korea. Radford, who had surgery over the summer to remove a cyst from his ankle bone, leaned on a sports psychologist.

“I personally feel a lot more relaxed and seemless,” Radford said. “That feeling has come a little bit later this season.”

Five pairs could take gold in Helsinki in perhaps the most wide-open event.

Germans Aliona Savchenko and (French-born) Bruno Massot won both of their fall Grand Prix events but missed the Grand Prix Final after she tore an ankle ligament. They returned to take silver at the European Championships in January with the best score of their two-year partnership.

Young Russians Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov stepped up to win the Grand Prix Final, the second-biggest annual competition, and then the European Championships. But free-skate struggles have dogged them this season.

Another Russian pair, Olympic silver medalists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov, are perhaps the biggest wild card. They missed the fall season due to Stolbova’s left leg injury, but then beat Tarasova and Morozov in their season debut at the Russian Championships. Stolbova fell on their throw triple flip in both programs at the European Championships in January, and they finished fourth.

Then there are Sui and Han, looking to break through for a first senior world title in their sixth try (though Sui is just 21 years old, and Han 24). They missed the fall season after Sui underwent right ankle and left foot surgeries last spring. They returned at Four Continents and posted personal-best free skate and total scores, ranking only behind Tarasova and Morozov for the season.

U.S. pairs Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim and Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier have both missed significant time due to injury in the last two years. They are behind the top pairs from Canada, China and Russia.

The U.S. hasn’t put a pair in the world championships top five since 2006, and that doesn’t figure to change next week.

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NBC Sports researcher Sarah Hughes contributed to this report.