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Blades cut historic path


TURIN, Italy -- Even as a child on Chicago's South Side, Shani Davis told friends he wanted to win speed skating's 1,000 meters at the Winter Olympics. He doesn't remember the reason he chose that event, but he must have had some sense of destiny because he won the race yesterday at the Oval Lingotto, becoming the first black athlete to win an individual gold medal at the Winter Games.

American Vonetta Flowers was the first black athlete to win a gold medal in the Winter Olympics with her victory in the bobsled four years ago in Salt Lake City, and Canadian hockey player Jarome Iginla later in those same Games became the first black man to win a winter gold medal.

But while Davis, 23, accepted his role as a pioneer, he didn't particularly embrace it.

"It's what people make of it," he said. "If people in America are excited and thrilled to have a black Olympic champion in speed skating, then I'm happy that I can make people happy."

He seemed more impressed that the United States has won all three individual speed skating races, with only the 1,500 and 10,000 to go. Chad Hedrick of Houston won the 5,000 and Joey Cheek of Greensboro, N.C., the 500.

"I don't think it's happened that we've had three American gold medalists in speed skating," Davis said. "The sport is ruled by Europeans."

The United States has never had more than two men win speed skating gold medals in a single Olympics before this year. That Davis joined Hedrick and Cheek as gold medalists is hardly surprising. The reigning world all-around champion, he is the world-record holder in the 1,000 and has not lost at the distance all season on the World Cup circuit.

He was the only man to break 1 minute, 9 seconds, crossing the finish line in 1:08.89. He then waited nervously for four other skaters to finish. The one who concerned him most was Cheek.

His first lap time was the fastest of the night, which was to be expected because he is the world sprint champion, but Davis wasn't able to relax until Cheek had finished in 1:09.16 for second place. The Netherlands' Erben Wennemars was third in 1:09.32.

"Seeing Joey going out and going so fast, I thought, 'Oh, my God,"' Davis said. "He and [South Korea's] Lee Kyou Hyuk were going so fast, I had to stay calm and not sweat bullets. If he'd done it, nobody would have deserved it more. But I was saying, 'I want a gold medal, too.' I don't know if he heard me. If he did, thanks."

Cheek was among the first to congratulate Davis, but the other two Americans in the race, Hedrick and Casey FitzRandolph, did not. Hedrick finished sixth and FitzRandolph ninth.

Asked after the race whether he was happy for Davis, Hedrick said, "I'm happy for Joey."

He later acknowledged that Davis skated fast.

"At least he said I skated fast," Davis said. "That's nice."

The U.S. men's speed skaters aren't a particularly tight group. The only thing they all seem to have in common is that they like the affable Cheek, who again last night donated his bonus check from the U.S. Olympic Committee, this one for $15,000, to the Right to Play charity. He had earlier donated his $25,000 bonus for winning a gold medal to the organization founded by former Norwegian speed skater Johann Olav Koss that helps children in disadvantaged areas around the world.

Davis, who trains in Calgary, Alberta, is seldom seen with his U.S. teammates, and he and his mother, who taught him how to skate when he was 6, have feuded with the U.S. speed skating federation over funding, the use of his name and likeness and perceived racism. They won't allow the federation to include his biography on its Web site.

Some of the U.S. men, Hedrick in particular, were upset this week because Davis wouldn't participate in the team pursuit. Without him, the United States did not advance past the quarterfinals.

Davis said last night that he didn't want to deprive one of the other U.S. skaters of a chance to compete in the Olympics. He also pointed out that the final two rounds of the team pursuit were one day in front of the 1,000.

"Would [Hedrick] have skated the team pursuit if the team pursuit was one day before the 5,000?" he asked. "We'll never know."

Wennemars skated in the team pursuit and returned 24 hours later to win the bronze medal in the 1,000. Cheek wasn't in the pursuit because he's a sprinter.

"I think he could have skated both," Wennemars said of Davis. "He's strong enough."

But he didn't quarrel with his decision.

"It doesn't matter what the United States thinks of Shani Davis. He's an Olympic champion now. He's right."

He did, however, question Davis' tradition of carrying a teddy bear with him on his victory laps, which he did again last night after first donning the cap of his favorite baseball team, the Chicago White Sox.

"Shani," Wennemars said, "leave the teddy bear at home."

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