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.
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.”
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.”