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Davis tracking third straight speedskating gold at 1,000 meters

SOCHI, Russia — Shani Davis has won two Olympic gold medals in the speedskating’s 1,000 meters, but crossing the finish line quicker than anyone else is as thrilling as ever for the 31-year-old Chicago native.

“There’s nothing that tops that feeling, being on the top of that podium, having a medal go around your beck,” he said Monday. “It’s just a tremendous feeling. That’s what I strive for. Hopefully I can fill my hunger on Wednesday.”

That’s when Davis skates the event in Sochi. If he wins gold, he will become the first American man to win the same event in three straight Winter Olympics.

No American in his sport has even come close to such a feat.

Joey Cheek took bronze in 2002 and silver in 2006.

Eric Heiden, whose five gold medals in his second Games in Lake Placid in 1980 are considered the sport’s standard, stopped competing shortly afterward.

A win could elevate Davis — whose 57 World Cup medals are 10 shy of the all-time record — as perhaps his sport’s greatest competitor.

Two women speedskaters have reached golden glory three times — American Bonnie Blair and Germany’s Claudia Pechstein.

“He’s going to be there and there’s no way you can count him out of anything.” Blair said recently of Davis. “He always seems to find a way to put himself in the mix of things.”

Davis has held the world record for almost four years. He is the overwhelming favorite coming in, having won three of four World Cup races as the top-ranked skater in the world.

He says he’s never been in better shape, but conceded that there is more pressure in Sochi.

“Defending is always harder than trying to be on the offense,” Davis said. “I have a lot on my shoulders. But I’ll do the best I can.”

Davis also has two silver medals in the 1,500. Capturing his fifth medal would equal Heiden for most by an American male speedskater. (The most-decorated Winter Olympian is Davis pal and short-track speedskater Apolo Anton Ohno, with eight). Davis and Heiden are the only men to capture world championships in both sprint (500 and 1,000 meters) and all-around (500, 1,500, 5,000 and 10,000 meters).

Davis will be tested by a surging Dutch team of younger skaters that so far has gone 1-2-3 in both men’s events here. Leading them is Michel Mulder, 27, who is coming off his second straight World Sprint championship. Mulder already has won one gold in Sochi, Monday’s 500.

Russia’s Denis Kuzin, 26, won the 1,000 at last year’s world championships at Adler Arena, site of Wednesday’s race. Davis took bronze.

“There are no favorites,” he said. “We can all win, and we are all still training hard.”

Also chasing Davis is Brian Hansen of Glenview, Ill.

The 2010 silver Olympic medalist in the team pursuit and is coming off his strongest World Cup season. Hansen, 23, trains with Davis and looked up to him as a kid. Hansen lost the 1,000 at the U.S. trials to Davis by a hundredth of a second.

“When you look where I’ve been time wise compared to him the past two years, every race has been really close, so the gap’s not that great,” Hansen said. “Career-to-career, it’s not the same at all. But I’m right there with him so I hope I can put it together when the time comes.”

The story of Shani Davis has been well-chronicled. Born on the South Side of Chicago, he began skating when his mother learned about speedskating while working for Chicago attorney Fred Benjamin, who has been involved in the sport for years. Davis and his mother moved to Evanston, Ill., where he excelled in his speedskating club.

He has ascended to the top of his sport, shattering records and gobbling up medals across the globe. For years he’s trained on his own, without a coach. He enjoys immense popularity in the Netherlands, a nation consumed by the sport.

“He’s very well known in the Netherlands, he’s always being asked for photographs and autographs, but in America not so much,” said Gerard Kemkers, the Dutch coach who worked with the United States in the 1990s. “For his results and knowing him personally, he is one of the greatest speed skaters of all time.

Since Davis arrived in Sochi, he has been more at ease with media attention and his with teammates. He is expected to compete in the team pursuit for the first time, a long bone of contention his previous two Games.

Three days after the 1000, Davis races in the 1,500-meter — the other of his “babies,” as he calls his best events. Until then, Davis is focused on making history. And he knows people are chasing him.

“In that 1,000, I’m the man,” Davis said. “I have the biggest target on my back and people really strive to beat me, and that’s all they really train and aim for.”
 

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