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Shani Davis has always been a man apart, and that's just the way he likes it.
Whether it has been blazing a trail for African-Americans in a virtually all-white sport or training by himself with no coach, Davis has always followed his own path. As he prepares to make a run at Olympic history in Sochi, the U.S. speedskating star can still remember growing up on the South Side of Chicago and participating in a sport that was foreign to his friends.
“At that time, it was a very elitist sport,’’ Davis told fellow speedskating great and NBC Olympic analyst Apolo Ohno on TODAY Tuesday. “I never even knew what kind of sport it was. I tried it out, and I've loved it ever since.”
After taking home gold in Turin in 2006 and Vancouver in 2010, Davis is trying to become the first male skater ever to win the 1,000-meter event in three straight Olympics. In 2006, he became the first black athlete to capture individual gold at the Winter Olympics. He spoke with Ohno, the most decorated winter Olympian in U.S. history, about his unique journey and his drive to make history.
Davis started skating when he was 6 years old, picking up a sport far from the conventional pursuits, like football and basketball, that were popular in the South Side.
“The speed, man. I always wanted to just go fast,’’ he said about the allure of skating. “I was just having fun. I enjoyed it. My homeboys and my friends, they clowned me real hard. They made fun of me wearing tights. I hold those days closest to me the most because it's about the road of getting there that I love so much.
“Being born and raised in Chicago made me tough. It made me strong. I feel like I can deal with anything. I truly believe that in my heart.”
As an Olympian, Davis has continued along his unconventional route. He does not train with the U.S. speedskating team, preferring to train alone, and he does not have a coach. He devises his own training regimen and his own strategy for races.
“No other teammates can help you when you're on the ice by yourself against the clock,’’ he told Ohno. “So I decided that if I'm going to race on my own, I'm going to train on my own.”
Davis can still recall the slights from early in his career, and he uses them as fuel for greatness.
“I just remember the days where I wasn't an Olympic champion or world champion or world record holder,’’ he said. “People always told me that I wasn't good enough, I wasn't talented enough, [and] even called me lazy. And I still carry that stuff with me to this day.”
Ohno has known Davis for 18 years, and said his drive and unique approach have never wavered.
"It's just a mentality that I've always had, since I was younger,'' Davis told Ohno. "I probably learned a lot of that from you [Ohno], seeing you train. Training together, we always pushed it 100 percent. We were never ones to leave the day without knowing that we did our best. So we would go hard, go all in."
No male speedskater has ever won three straight golds at any distance, so Sochi is another chance for Davis to set himself apart from the rest as he has done all his life.
"Whenever I put myself out there on the line, skating against other people, I simply want to win,'' he said. "Things haven't changed since I was a young kid. I just wanted to be the fastest guy I could be, and I am still chasing that dream to this day."