RICHMOND, British Columbia — "You think he'll stop?" "You think he'll talk to us?"
The U.S. press corps milled around the interview area in the bowels of the Richmond Olympic Oval on Saturday afternoon awaiting the emergence of speedskater Shani Davis, who had a reputation of trusting the media about as much as Howard Hughes.
Davis had just finished 12th in the 5,000-meter race, 13.84 seconds behind winner Sven Kramer of the Netherlands, who set an Olympic record in 6 minutes 14.60 seconds.
Davis' finish wasn't a surprise, as he specializes in the 1,000 meters and the 1,500 meters. The bigger shock is that Davis not only stopped to talk to the media, but also he did it with an easy smile, was warm and candid, and said that, yes, things are "a lot more positive than before, and changing for the better."
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Davis won a gold medal and a silver medal four years ago. But despite having an inspiring story — he grew up on Chicago's South Side and is the first black athlete to win an individual gold medal at a Winter Olympics — he did not endear himself to the media because he and his fiercely devoted mother, Cherie, came off as aloof and suspicious.
At the time, Davis was engaged in a bitter public feud with U.S. teammate, Chad Hedrick, a triple-medal winner, over Davis' decision not to compete in the team pursuit. Hedrick criticized Davis, suggesting he was unpatriotic and selfish, and Davis grumbled under his breath about Hedrick at their postrace news conference, one of the frostiest Olympic medalists' conferences in recent memory.
The spat overshadowed their accomplishments.
It didn't help that Davis has a chilly relationship with the U.S. Speedskating Federation because of perceived slights. He refuses to train with the team, accept its funding, or appear in its media guide. He trains on his own, and is funded by private sponsors, many of them from the Netherlands, where Davis is a hero.
But all that negative energy seems to be melting this week. Perhaps the unseasonably warm weather has defrosted Davis, or maybe he got some public relations advice. Whatever the case, he has been downright charming.
He also proved to be a team player, giving up his spot in the 10,000 so that U.S. teammate Jonathan Kuck could compete in his first Olympics. Davis would have been the first U.S. speedskater since Eric Heiden in 1980 to skate all five events.
"I just feel that I'm telling myself to keep on enjoying, enjoying, enjoy the Olympics," Davis said. "I had two Olympics beforehand, and they weren't quite good for me. But this time, it's a whole other story. I'm having a lot of fun. I'm enjoying myself. I'm happy for my competitors. I greeted everyone out there that made the podium and the people who had personal bests. I'm just really excited to go out there and showcase what I can do. I'm just itching."
Hedrick, the reigning 5,000-meter champion, also has done quite a bit of growing up in the past four years. He got married, had a baby girl with wife, Lynsey, and three weeks ago the couple suffered a miscarriage. Hedrick finished 11th on Saturday, and like Davis, is putting 2006 behind him.
"I have a different outlook now," said Hedrick, who also is concentrating on the 1,000 and the 1,500. "All that happened last time is old news, and not worth talking about. I've seen Shani in the locker room, and it's low key. We're going to drive each other to gold medals."
Hedrick says he, too, is making it a point to enjoy the Olympic experience. "This is an awesome Olympic city, I'm living in a waterfront condo for three weeks, doing what I love; it doesn't get much better than that."
Both U.S. skaters lauded Kramer, who holds world records in the 5,000 and 10,000, and whose Olympic record Saturday was particularly remarkable because the rink is at sea level, near water, and considered to have slow ice. Lee Seung-Hoon of South Korea won silver and Ivan Skobrev of Russia took bronze.
"It just goes to show that Sven has a heart of a champion," said Davis, who was paired with the Dutch master. "He had to go out first. He had a whole bunch of sharpshooters behind him, and he went out and did this thing. He didn't leave anything to question about who is better than him. He put all his cards on the table and his hand won."
Davis said keeping up with Kramer for four or five laps will help him in the shorter distances.
"It made me reach really deep into myself, and that broke the ice for the races to come," he said.No matter what happens, Davis is smiling for a change.
"The attitudes with a lot of things have changed, not only with me, but just how people interact and deal with me and what people are putting out in media and stuff," he said. "It's a lot more positive than it was before. I feel like things are changing for the better, and I'm just really excited and happy to be in the position I am now."
Kaufman reports for the Miami Herald