By MICHAEL SOKOLOVE
As Shani Davis approached the starting line for a World Cup race in November, at an ice oval in the Dutch town of Heerenveen north of Amsterdam, a marching band that was circling the arena stopped playing, and the festive crowd — many of them dressed from head to toe in orange, the national color — roared in anticipation. Davis, who is 27 and poised to become one of the most decorated Winter Olympians ever to compete for the United States, is like an American jazzman in the 1950s — little known and poorly compensated at home but beloved in certain parts of Europe. Here, they understand his sport and perhaps, on some level, even Davis himself, who accumulates grievances and clings to them as if they were first-place medals. “We can see that Shani is someone who lives for speed skating, and we don’t care so much about all the rest of it,” Irene Postma, a Dutch journalist who covers the sport, told me as we waited for the race to begin. “And he is so perfect, so beautiful when he races. I would know him just by his silhouette.
A starter’s gun fired, and Davis sprinted off in the 1,000 meters, one of two distances at which he holds the world record, atop blades that were 17½ inches long and just one-sixteenth of an inch wide where they met the ice. Speed skating is a highly technical sport in which competitors want to be able to “feel” the ice and therefore have as little as possible between its surface and the nerve endings of their feet. Davis’s boots, like those of most elite speed skaters, were custom made from molds taken of his feet and surprisingly low-cut — not much higher on his ankles than a pair of Converse canvas sneakers. He wore no socks. He was skating, essentially, on two long knives fastened to a pair of snug-fitting slippers.
I stood at the first turn of the 400-meter oval, just on the other side of the protective wall, as Davis whooshed down the straightaway. His knees were bent, his upper body low and still and his left arm wrapped behind his back as he leaned into the counterclockwise turn. Movement in the torso robs a skater of speed, while “force delivered to the ice and not going up into the air is what creates maximum velocity,” as one of the U.S. national-team coaches explained it to me. (Davis is competing this Olympic season only in long track, the sport’s more traditional form, although he is the rare long-track racer to have also risen to the world-class level in short track, which makes vastly different demands of a skater.)
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